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Facebook Australia row: A dose of realism on tech regulation

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Amol Rajan

Media editor

@amolrajanon Twitter

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionFacebook has blocked all news content to Australians

The enormous beef between Australia’s government and Facebook has persuaded a lot of people that we are entering a new era of technology regulation.

In policy and news conferences from Palo Alto to Perth, mostly conducted on Zoom of course, heavy chat about regulation and chin-stroking reliably go together. But as is often the way with complex areas of policy, the word “regulation” has now been so used and abused as to have lost all precision in meaning.

A dose of accuracy, and realism, is overdue.

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There are countless types of regulation, whether social or economic, most of them yet to be invented. Different countries have radically different approaches to regulation. The types of company being regulated vary hugely. And regulation, whatever form it takes, is likely to have consequences that are both slow and unforeseeable.

To Australia first. The consistent negative publicity and coverage of Facebook in recent years has coloured the debate to such an extent that Facebook’s argument has been somewhat lost in the coverage that I’ve seen. It’s important to re-assert this, not to defend Facebook, but because there is a principle at stake that goes to the heart of what the web is: which is why, by the way, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented it, has defended the company’s position.

Australia’s initial view was that companies such as Facebook should pay for links. This is a very big deal. The free, open web that we have today is based on the principle that you don’t have to pay for links. Start paying for links, and you move to a very different web. This is what Berners-Lee said to Australian legislators.

Moreover, it’s not just any links, but links pertaining to a particular category of web material: edited information – that is, news. But what counts as news, and why privilege this one category of material?

On the first question, does tabloid journalism count as news? What about a community blogger who posts magistrates’ updates? Ok, how about a magazine that focuses on fishing – but does a news round-up in its opening pages? Should they be paid by Facebook?

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On the second question, the short, shallow answer is: Rupert Murdoch. He arguably wields more influence in the land of his birth than he does in the US or Britain. A longer, better answer may come via metaphor.

image copyrightReuters

image captionThe ABC News Facebook page was affected by Facebook’s action

Think of a car maker – say, Volvo. Cars are about getting from A to B, but to make the journey more pleasant, they also have radios. Radio stations choose to go out on frequencies transmitted through car radios. So Magic FM chooses to be in car radios, because it derives value from it: building an audience that they can sell advertising against.

Sure, Volvo derives some benefit from Magic FM; but if Magic FM didn’t play in a Volvo, you’d probably still buy it. Nobody ever said, “Sure, I’ll buy this Volvo – but only if you guarantee I can get Magic FM”.

There is a limit to this analogy, which we’ll get to; but the Australian law is a bit like asking Volvo to pay Magic FM each time that radio network plays out in a Volvo car. We don’t ask car makers to pay radio networks. Why ask tech platforms to pay for news – when news is only around 4% of all the content on Facebook (most of which is groups arranging to walk their dogs, or pictures of babies, etc)? After all, publishers choose to be on Facebook, because like Magic FM in cars, they derive value from it.

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The answer – and this is where the analogy, while instructive, falls – is that our public information system, the media, is too precious and too damaged for the normal rules to apply.

And Facebook has definitely contributed to that damage, by spreading lies and misinformation; and arguably contributed to it by vacuuming up so much digital advertising. Moreover, Volvo is one of many car makers who have a comparable share of the market; whereas when it comes to advertising, most of which is online these days, Facebook and Google have around 60% globally.

So will other countries follow?

Even then, those who make the case for the original Australian proposals have to justify privileging news, define what news is, and accept that they want the current freedom and openness of the web to be compromised.

One person ostensibly willing to do all those things is Dr Andrea Coscelli, the Italian economist who is head of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. In an interview with me this week, Coscelli made clear his sympathy for the Australian proposals, which he called “sensible”. On the point that paying for links changes the fundamental nature of the web, he said he was relaxed about that; the web has changed before, and will change again.

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media captionThe Competition and Markets Authority would like regulatory changes to deal with the ‘imbalance of power’

I was very struck by the clarity of his answers when asked about Google and Facebook specifically. Do they constitute a “duopoly”, I asked? “Yes.” Is Google’s 90% share of the search advertising market too big, I asked? “Yes.” And what about Facebook’s more than 50% share of the display advertising market in the UK. Too big? “Yes”.

It is unusual to hear such definitive answers from a regulator. While Dr Coscelli was also full of praise for the tech giants, which he made clear are brilliant companies, his forthright take makes clear that Australia has set a noisy precedent. The onus is now on regulators and legislators everywhere to answer the question: well, Australia have done it, so why haven’t we?

And yet it might not make much of a difference, at least for a while. The sheer dominance of Facebook and Google was laid bare by the precipitous drop in traffic to publishers in Australia, when Facebook briefly pulled the plug last week (see graph below). It fell off a cliff, showing that many businesses have built their futures on the fickle friendship of Mark Zuckerberg – something I have been warning media companies against for years.

image copyrightChartbeat/BBC

image captionFacebook’s blocking of Australian publications had a drastic effect on traffic to the online sites

I also detect a lot of wishful thinking among those who believe the Australian proposals will seriously alter the balance of power in our public domain. Obviously that’s not a reason to hold back reforms; indeed it may be a reason to accelerate them. But it will be a long time before the dominance of Google and Facebook is chipped away, let alone defeated.

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Why? Because of the nature of data.

And then what?

For a while now I have tried to debunk the platitude that data is the new oil, alas with no success. I won’t repeat the arguments here, except to say it is still in common parlance to argue that just as Teddy Roosevelt and his allies broke up an oil-igarchy a century ago, so a new generation of trust-busters could do the same to the world’s first hoodie-wearing oligarchy, which we have today.

But the oil barons ran national companies which were confronted by national politicians, whereas the data kings are global beasts. And aside from the myriad, essential ways data and oil differ, Dr Coscelli was clear in our interview that the nature of data is such that those who have it gain an exponential advantage over others. With a bit of data you can often get more, basically; whereas oil is finite. And so, over the past 15 years, Google and Facebook have developed astonishingly detailed profiles on half of humanity. They know a lot about you, me, our families, and the Smiths at No 72.

A lot of people pay a lot of money for these profiles. This is sometimes called surveillance capitalism.

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Those 15 years have given Facebook and Google a monumental incumbency advantage. It will take a very, very long time for any new entrant to get even close to competing. As things stand, one of the closest competitors to Google is Bing, Microsoft’s search tool. Microsoft is richer than both Google and Facebook. The idea that, with more regulation, some plucky upstart from a garage in Grimsby could knock the duopoly off their perch is deluded.

Again, this may strengthen the case for more regulation, not weaken it. It’s vital, however, to be realistic and hard-headed: not just about what regulation means in different places, but what it might actually achieve, and by when.

If you’re interested in issues such as these, you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram; and subscribe to The Media Show podcast from BBC Radio 4.

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Facebook-Meta Earns the ‘Worst Company of 2021’ Title in This Survey

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Facebook has had its share of controversies this year. The company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents.

Facebook parent Meta has been named the Worst Company of the Year (2021) by Yahoo Finance respondents. According to the publication, an “open-ended” survey was published on Yahoo Finance on December 4 and 5, where 1,541 respondents participated. Facebook received 8 percent of the write-in vote, but respondents were seemingly mad about the Robinhood trading app as well. Electric truck startup Nikola, which was named last year’s worst company by the same publication also faced respondents ire.

Yahoo Finance notes, “Facebook has had its share of controversies this year.” Starting in January, Meta-owned WhatsApp got caught up in a huge controversy after the messaging app announced a new privacy policy (Terms of Service). WhatsApp said it would collect user information and share it with third-party apps for a better user experience. However, the app gave users no choice but later made modifications to the policy under pressure. Similarly, the company was under more scrutiny after whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked a series of internal documents showing the company’s problematic practices. It was revealed that Meta-owned Instagram had a negative impact on teenage girls, but the company did almost nothing to rectify the problem.

Yahoo Finance even highlights, “At the same time, some critics, including conservatives, say Facebook over-policed the platform’s speech and stifled their voices.” Critics also blame Facebook and other social media platforms for not curbing hate speech that led to Capitol Building riots.

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However, around 30 percent of Yahoo Finance readers said that Facebook or Meta could redeem itself. One respondent suggested that the company could issue a formal apology for negligence and donate a sizable amount of its profits to a foundation to help reverse its harm.

On the other hand, respondents chose Microsoft as the Company of the Year (2021). The Satya Nadella-led company touched the trillion-mark this year and introduced notable upgrades. The most notable is the Windows 11 OS update that succeeds Windows 10.

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Facebook pays 1.7 Cr fine to Russia after failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal

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In the latest legal tussle with Russia over controversial social media regulation laws, Facebook paid 17 million roubles (Rs 1.7 Crore) for failing to remove content deemed illegal by Moscow. With a threat of potential larger fines looming, Facebook parent company Meta, owned by Mark Zuckerberg, is scheduled to face court next week over repeated violations of Russian legislation on content, Interfax News Agency reported. As per the latest updates, the social media giant could be fined a percentage of its annual revenue.

In October, Moscow sent state bailiffs to enforce the collection of 17 million roubles. Meanwhile, as per Interfax report citing a federal bailiffs’ database, on Sunday, there were more enforcement proceedings against the company. Apart from the popular social media app, Telegram has also paid 15 million roubles in fines for failing to comply with the Russian social media legislations that came into force in 2016.

Facebook pays $53k to Russia for refusing controversial social media laws

It is pertinent to mention that Facebook has locked horns with Moscow earlier in November, resulting in it paying 4 million roubles ($53,000) over its refusal to adhere to Russian data localisation laws, the Moscow Times reported. The Moscow court on November 25 had said that Facebook paid the fine levied in February, following which all proceedings against the US-based social media giant. The payment comes against the litigation filed against the company in 2018, alongside Twitter. The tech companies were also forced to pay an additional 3000 rubles ($40) for failing to comply with user data sharing rules as per the law. The Russian authorities have also previously blocked LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, for failing to abide by the laws.

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Russian social media laws

As per Moscow Times, under the Russian social media regulation laws, all foreign technology companies are required to store data related to Russian customers and users on servers located in Russia. Additionally, the Russian tech companies will also have to share encryption data with the federal authorities as well as record user calls, messages and civil society group conversation records. The apparatus is said to be a severe breach of privacy rights and unfettered back-door access to personal data that could be used to harass Kremlin critics.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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