This week we were (once again) amused that Facebook was in the news this time in a face-off with the Australian government. The argument was pitched by the vast majority of the mainstream media worldwide as a standoff between the David of the Aussie government versus the Goliath of a social media company. The nub of it was that the government said “You are publishers and you have to pay news/media outlets for publishing their content”. Facebook said “Nah, we don’t publish anything – we merely let users point people to links that they’d like to share”. Government: “Nope. You are going to have to pay those news sources – or else”. Facebook: “Or else what?”. Government: “Or else we’ll pass this law we’ve been thinking of and we’ll make you pay. What do you think of that, huh?” Facebook: “Okay. We’ll just pull all links to news sources. There won’t be any links to news on Facebook in Australia”. Government: “Hah. You can’t bully us like that – you wouldn’t dare”. Facebook: “Hold our beer and watch this…”
So Facebook did just that. At the flick of a switch there was no news ‘content’ (or more specifically links to news content) on Facebook down under. Now that was hilarious. Why? Well partly because there was a lot of content that got taken down as a consequence (for example official government information/news/links to sources). Also because it exemplifies that many people – particularly those in positions of power – simply don’t understand how Facebook (or Google or even the internet in general) works. It’s in some ways a complex business technically speaking but philosophically it can be explained quite easily: Facebook is free. Yes – the end-user does not pay for access to the technology or the programme or any of its ‘content’. Furthermore you are not obliged to use Facebook. You can literally take it or leave it. No one is twisting anyone’s arm. It’s funded by advertising – lots of advertising which makes Facebook a lot (a lot) of money. You are free to follow advertising links or ignore them completely. Your choice. Enough people will be interested in advertisements to make it worth the advertisers while but, again, it’s not obligatory.
Now many people were shocked that Facebook went down this route. Some even complained that it was undemocratic. “How will people find out where the bushfire risks are?” they complained. Well now if Facebook is your primary source of that kind of information then you might want to broaden your horizons a bit. Don’t forget that pretty much everything that you see on Facebook (except pictures of people’s cats and opinions on the state of the roads round your way) is an ‘external’ link. That is to say that the information had to originate somewhere. Somewhere like an official government website/hub, maybe. What the Australian government forgot is that they have become reliant on Facebook because it is easy and…er…free. They don’t pay Mark Zuckerburg a cent. So why should Facebook pay? The crux of the matter (and perhaps the reason why the mainstream media of the world are howling in protest) is that old models of news dissemination and publishing are pretty much obsolete in the modern world. Physical newspapers are old hat – they have, or are, dying a death in the local, national and international sphere. And nobody cares (other than the people that own them and the politicians who are in their pay in return for support). You might argue that we need good journalism in order to uncover the facts and expose the truth. Hell yes we do but how many news outlets actually do that? Here in the UK we have an extremely partisan right-wing press – are we expected to trust them? Even the ‘progressives’ have an agenda twisted toward the status quo since they are part of the ‘establishment’. It’s the ‘independents’ that you should probably be looking at – and they mostly have a Facebook presence.
So if you are a Facebook user next time you are looking at your ‘news feed’ or ‘timeline’ or ‘wall’ or whatever you call it have a look at a link to a news story that a friend has shared. Now follow that link. What do you find at the source? Possibly a ‘paywall’ – you won’t be allowed to read the content without signing up for it at a cost in actual money. Or maybe you will find more advertising content – space bought up by advertisers and paid to the content generator (a newspaper for example). In both instances the content generator is being paid. Why should Facebook pay them more?
Now lest you start thinking that this section of Americana-UK has turned into an ubercapitalist free-marketeer bonkers free for all then think again. We’re not fond of capitalist monopolies just like we’re not fond of authoritarian governments. But we do know how the internet works and we are absolutely certain that that particular genie is not going back into the bottle. Governments can try but people are so tech-savvy these days that ways will be found around any particular problem. And the rest of us will benefit from that. Even in Facebook is made to fail something else will take its place. It’s the nature of the beast.
Editor’s note: As always, the author’s views are his own and not necessarily shared by all AUK writers.