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Facebook will reverse news block in Australia

Following a five-day standoff with the Australian government, Facebook will soon return news to its platform Down Under.

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- 04:28
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Brendon Thorne / Stringer

In the face of an Australian bill that would force Facebook to pay publishers for the news content that surfaces on its platform, the social networking giant last week made a dramatic move, pulling all news from its platform Down Under. After several days of discussion between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Australia's treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, the company on Monday announced an end to the standoff, bringing news back to its platform.

"After further discussions with the Australian government, we have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers," said Campbell Brown, head of Facebook's Global News Partnerships division, in a statement. "We're restoring news on Facebook in Australia in the coming days."

Facebook will bring news back to Australia not out of generosity but rather because it says it got sufficient concessions from the government. Frydenberg and Australian Communications Minister Paul Fletcher pledged on Monday to make changes to the News Media Bargaining Code, the bill in question, which they assured will "strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers."

Facebook's blockade meant that, since last Wednesday, news has vanished from the platform in Australia. Brand pages for outlets like CNET or The New York Times went completely blank, while users were restricted from posting news content. The feeds of Australia's 11 million users have been completely bereft of news. It was a scattershot approach for Facebook, with multiple non-news pages, like the Bureau of Meteorology and South Australia Health, also having their pages wiped clean.

Under the proposed bill, Facebook and Google would be made to negotiate with local publishers over payment for the news content that surfaces on Facebook's feed and Google's search results. If no agreement could be reached in 90 days, government-appointed arbitrators would hand down a binding compensation agreement. Publishers would also need to be given advanced notice of changes to algorithms that would affect how their content is ordered and prioritized.

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Here's what CNET's Facebook page looks like in Australia.

Screencap by Daniel Van Boom/CNET

After balking in February and threatening to pull search out of Australia, Google has since made several big-money deals with publishers. That includes Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and local giant Nine Entertainment, two of the biggest companies to lobby for the bill. But just as Google agreed to join the negotiating table, Facebook went the other way, blocking news with no warning. 

It may not be the last time, either. In her Monday statement, Brown noted that Facebook reserves the right to pull news at a future date if the social media giant feels it's being subjected to unfair treatment.

"Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won't automatically be subject to a forced negotiation," she said.

Australia's treasurer listed in a statement some of the amendments the government has agreed to make to the News Media Bargaining Code. The first states the code must consider whether a company has made "a significant contribution" to the country's news industry through deals with publishers before it's officially designated as a "digital platform" in the bill.

In other words, Facebook is hoping that if it cuts enough deals with local publishers it could shield itself from being designated one of the "digital platforms" the bill targets. 

"As a result of these changes, we can now work to further our investment in public interest journalism and restore news on Facebook for Australians in the coming days," Facebook's Brown said.

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Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. 

Sam Mooy/Stringer

Public negotiations

The News Media Bargaining Code has been in the works for years. After being drafted by Australia's competition watchdog, it entered the House of Representatives in December. In late January, a Senate committee began an inquiry into its feasibility, at which time Google said it might block Australia from using its search engine if the bill becomes law. Google was concerned that it would be forced to pay for the news links and snippets that surface following search inquiries. 

After the senate committee recommended the bill's passage through Parliament, Google took a more conciliatory stance. Through News Showcase, a feature on its News app that highlights stories from participating outlets, it signed deals with Seven West and Nine Entertainment reported to be worth over AU$30 million ($23 million) annually. News of a global agreement between Google and News Corp. followed soon after. 

Ads on Google's search homepage that once warned Australian users that the News Media Bargaining Code would "make search worse" now paraded the fact that Google had signed nearly 80 publications up to News Showcase. 

But as Google was signing agreements with Australian publishers, Facebook seemingly opted for the nuclear option. With no notice, Australians woke up last Thursday to find themselves restricted from posting news stories to their feeds. Yet as final as the outcome felt, there were signs it was merely a bargaining chip placed on the table by Facebook.

"Today I had a further conversation with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg," Frydenberg tweeted on Friday. "We talked through their remaining issues and agreed our respective teams would work through them immediately. We'll talk again over the weekend."

Facebook's decision to return news to Australians is the fruit of that labor, but it's not yet clear which side conceded more.