The battle for control over social media in Australia

By Jim Hayes

Facebook will cut down allowing news content to be posted on its platform in Australia. This is the reaction to the move to force social media companies to pay publishers. Restrictions have already begun.

This is not as straight forward as it might seem. Protecting the income of journalists for what they write is important. No doubt about this. Publishers may have a legitimate claim to a return on what they produce.

It is possible to set appropriate safeguards in other ways. This has not been canvassed, because the legitimate protection of journalists and publishers is not the objective.

If we really want to know what is going on, we just need to look at the relationship between Rupert Murdoch and the government. It’s been a cosy one. In a few years, cross media ownership laws have been watered down so much that the mogul’s News Corporation now owns most of the print media, and a big swathe of television and radio industry across the nation.

News Corporation has been leading the campaign against the social media platforms for years, in a similar vein to its leading the campaign against the ABS and SBS.

What has already been written, published and out on the public domain should no longer be regarded as private property, unless the intention is to republish for profit. Most users of social media do not publish for profit. A clear distinction should be made.

The campaign sells itself as a move to target social media companies to share their profits. This is misleading. It is only part of it. The ultimate target is the social media user, who will end up paying or have access limited. The effect off this will be to reduce internet democracy, and favour organisations and individuals with lots of money behind them.

It is already a reality that those who can pay, can buy more say and a bigger audience, in line with the size of their investment. Imposing a much more thorough user pays system with will magnify this. The new system News Media Code being imposed by the Australian government, Murdoch, and some other big traditional media seeks to do just this.

Traditional media is losing audience and profit. Noe have been more affected the News Corporation, and it is no secret about its drive to shift to digital media in a big way. Nor is it that Murdoch had tried to buy Facebook and Google at their inception, and that they refused to sell. This was followed the venture into Foxtel. Now the focus is social media.

If he can’t take over the existing platforms directly, Murdoch aims at limiting them and forcing them into arrangements that will provide openings for News Corp, and he has worked closely with the Morrison government to set the groundwork for this.

If the strategy succeeds, we can look forward to the emergence of paywalls, like the ones that already exist for all News Corporation media. Does anyone seriously believe that that the same would not apply if News Corp gained substantial control over social media platforms?

Facebook is resisting this assault. It knows very well that its bread and butter is the users being able to access. Google has reached an accommodation. Because its main business is not social media and is already more dependent on the traditional media outlets to operate its search engine and other services.

For the users, the big issue is not the welfare of the owners of the social media platforms. It is freedom of access and democracy on the Internet.

This is a battle for the control of social media. It should be in the hands of the broad community.

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