Daniel Bernhard is the executive director of the non-partisan watchdog Friends of Canadian Broadcasting.
“I won’t pay. I know too much about extortion.” So said Tony Soprano.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is channelling the notorious TV gangster with his threat to prevent Australians from viewing or posting domestic or international news on his platform. Mr. Zuckerberg’s threat is in response to a proposed law that would force him to start paying for news that appears on Facebook.
It is no coincidence that Facebook is going all out to protect its ability to take news content without consent or compensation from outlets that produce it. Facebook competes with newspapers and broadcasters for advertising sales, and selling ads against content your competitors spend money to produce is a lucrative racket. Having to pay these suppliers would obviously hurt profits.
Facebook has another incentive to keep journalists under its thumb. This rogue company’s most glaring misdeeds have been revealed by – you guessed it – journalists, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal that broke Canadian law and likely contributed to the 2016 election of Donald Trump, complicity in swinging the Brexit vote with illegal ads, knowingly radicalizing vulnerable users, knowingly spreading hatred and calls to violence in Myanmar, helping advertisers target COVID-19 scams to people interested in “pseudoscience” and allowing advertisers to hide employment and housing ads from Black and Indigenous people, to name but a few. These scandals have led to criminal, tax and regulatory actions in multiple countries, all of which threaten Facebook’s ability to intimidate governments, as it is now trying to do in Australia. They also reveal the essential value of journalism to democracy.
Facebook is on an irreversible collision course with democracy. The company’s highly profitable but fundamentally anti-democratic practices include enabling campaign-finance fraud, spreading messages that encourage people to shoot peaceful protesters and allowing politicians to grossly and perhaps fatally undermine the legitimacy of democratic elections.
What was once a backroom power play is now a full-blown public war. Facebook’s brazen standoff with the Australian government puts its disdain for democracy on display. By using its historically unparallelled powers of influence and manipulation to turn citizens against their own governments, Facebook is sending a clear message to democracies everywhere: regulate us at your peril.
Forcing Facebook to pay for the news content it sells is a fair, productive and necessary step, but this measure alone will not resuscitate journalism. The news industry is what doctors call “a complex patient;” it suffers from multiple ailments, many self-inflicted.
But even solving part of the problem is surely better than leaving it to metastasize. Canada has lost more than 16,000 journalists since 2006 – more than a third of the profession. Since the pandemic struck, at least 3,000 more journalism jobs have disappeared. Hundreds of outlets have reduced service or shuttered their operations. A recent report shows advertising revenues down more than 50 per cent.
If we want to sustain journalism, we need to ensure that journalists are paid for their vital work. No other company (apart from Google, which is also mentioned in the proposed Australian regulations) would get away with taking news content without payment or permission.
Canada should follow Australia’s lead – and quickly – if for no other reason than to stand up to Mr. Zuckerberg’s arrogance and remind Facebook that the laws of democratic states are non-negotiable. Truly sovereign states don’t bow to corporate threats.
Ultimately, this is about more than journalism. The real question is who’s in charge: democratically elected governments in Canberra and Ottawa or seditious billionaires like Mr. Zuckerberg, who no longer bother with even the faintest pretense of bowing to the people’s authority?
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