Facebook may regret blacking out news in Australia

As John reported on Thursday, Facebook banned the entire nation of Australia from sharing links to news sites based on a new law that the Aussies are considering putting in place. If enacted, it would force Facebook to pay a fee to the news organizations being linked every time anyone posted such a link. It was a preemptive move that certainly looked heavy-handed, but as John noted at the time, it’s not entirely unreasonable.

As the Associated Press notes this week, however, this “power move” on the part of Mark Zuckerberg may wind up backfiring on him. What he’s really accomplished here is a demonstration of just how much power Facebook has over public access to journalism. The Australian government, rather than backing down, may wind up taking the war right to Zuckerberg’s doorstep. And they may not be alone.

That power play — a response to an Australian law that would compel Facebook to pay publishers for using their news stories — might easily backfire, given how concerned many governments have grown about the company’s unchecked influence over society, democracy and political discourse. But it’s still a startling reminder of just how much power CEO Mark Zuckerberg can wield at the touch of a figurative button.

“Zuckerberg’s flex here shows how he can disrupt global access to the news in a heartbeat,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and professor at Syracuse University. “No company should have this much influence over access to journalism.”

Facebook’s move means people in Australia can no longer post links to news stories on Facebook. Outside Australia, meanwhile, no one can post links to Aussie news sources such as the Sydney Morning Herald.

What happens next largely depends on how much attention regulators around the world are paying to this brouhaha. Democratic Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who sits on such a regulatory committee, has already stated that “Facebook is not compatible with democracy.” He went on to say that the social media giant has provided “the ultimate admission of monopoly power.”

Congressional Democrats have already announced upcoming hearings intended to “curb online platforms” and potentially make revisions to existing antitrust laws. How those might be applied to companies like Facebook and Twitter remains to be seen, but you can rest assured that Mark Zuckerberg isn’t going to like the result.

Facebook and Twitter have really been enjoying the best of both worlds for quite a while now, as we’ve discussed here in the past. If anyone complains about any content posted on their sites they can shrug their shoulders and hide behind Section 230, saying that the problem is coming from the users who create the content. At the same time, if users post any content that the social media giants’ liberal bosses don’t care for they can start swinging the ban hammer with abandon. Since they aren’t a governmental agency, they can’t really be hit with charges of censorship or First Amendment violations.

What’s been demonstrated with this massive news blackout in Australia is the fact that Facebook is past the “too big to fail” stage. Simply telling people they can simply “go somewhere else” has been proven to be a lie, as we saw with Parler’s attempts to get off the ground. Facebook and Twitter effectively control the flow of news and opinion and they’ve become far too comfortable employing that power in a biased fashion while facing no consequences. More government regulation is rarely a solution that small-government conservatives lean toward, but some sort of regulatory action and/or antitrust initiative may wind up being in order here.