from the i-remain-confused dept
We’ve talked a fair bit about Australia’s ridiculous “News Bargaining Code,” which is literally nothing more than a tax on Facebook and Google for sending traffic to media organizations. Again, the law requires Facebook and Google (and just Facebook and Google) to pay media organizations for sending them web traffic. This is, of course, backwards to any sensible set up. Why should anyone have to pay for sending traffic to a website? Here, the answer appears to be, because Rupert Murdoch wants to get paid and is jealous of the success of Facebook and Google. The best summary of the whole thing comes from the Australian satirical video maker, The Juice Media:
The law does seem widely popular in Australia, mainly because the very same media that is getting paid because of this law spent years demonizing Facebook and Google, so many people think the law is good, even though it’s really just transferring money from some giant companies to other giant companies, and making sure that smaller media organizations get screwed in the process.
Anyway, as the law went into effect, Facebook broke out the nuclear option and blocked news sharing in Australia. This move made a lot of people angry, but I still don’t understand why. You don’t create a tax on things you want more of, you create a tax on things you want less of. If you tell a social media company that you are going to make them pay for sending any traffic to news stories, why is it surprising or bad that the company then says “ok, no more links to news stories?” If you don’t like that result, then maybe don’t pass such ridiculous laws?
Eventually, after a slight modification to the law, Facebook caved in anyway, re-enabled links to news stories, and started negotiating to pay money to a small number of big media organizations in Australia.
Anyway, the Wall Street Journal recently had an article revealing some internal Facebook documents from a whistleblower with the fairly provocative title: “Facebook Deliberately Caused Havoc in Australia to Influence New Law, Whistleblowers Say” and I went to read it, expecting some terrible smoking gun, about just how badly Facebook management screwed up — something the company has an uncanny knack for doing. And… I couldn’t really find anything.
Basically, the documents seem to show that when Facebook put in place that Australian news block, it ended up over-blocking sites that shouldn’t have been blocked, including government and charity sites. And, yes, that sounds bad, but again, the way the law was written was that if Facebook was allowing links to any news, it faced potentially massive fees it would be forced to pay up. So, when that’s how the law is structured, the only reasonable response is to over-block. It’s what any lawyer would recommend. It’s what I would recommend too.
The law is written in such a way that if you make a mistake and let news through you’re going to get into trouble, and as we’ve seen from other intermediary liability laws from around the globe, the perfectly natural response to any of this is to over-block. If you don’t, you face massive liability.
So I kept reading the WSJ piece, and waiting for the big reveal of what terrible thing that Facebook had done… and it appears to basically be… exactly what you’d expect. The company rushed to put this in place and over-blocked because they didn’t want to let anything get through that would cause them problems under the law.
Two hours later, the product manager for the team wrote in the internal logs: “Hey everyone—the [proposed Australian law] we are responding to is extremely broad, so guidance from the policy and legal team has been to be overinclusive and refine as we get more information.”
She then outlined the team’s plan to undo the improper blocking, including starting with “the most obvious cases” like government and healthcare pages, and the need to go to outside legal counsel for “more nuanced” cases.
And… yeah? I mean, of course you would want to be overly inclusive. If you weren’t then the whole reason for blocking news links goes away. Again, it seems like the real issue here is the law, and how broadly and stupidly it was written.
The WSJ piece does raise a point that Facebook already had a list of news orgs that it didn’t use, and at first that seemed like perhaps that was significant… until the very next paragraph when it becomes obvious why that list wasn’t used: because it clearly was not comprehensive, and the law applied to a much broader list of news sites:
Instead of using Facebook’s long-established database of existing news publishers, called News Page Index, the newly assembled team developed a crude algorithmic news classifier that ensured more than just news would be caught in the net, according to documents and the people familiar with the matter. “If 60% of [sic] more of a domain’s content shared on Facebook is classified as news, then the entire domain will be considered a news domain,” stated one internal document. The algorithm didn’t distinguish between pages of news producers and pages that shared news.
The Facebook documents in the complaints don’t explain why it didn’t use its News Page Index. A person familiar with the matter said that since news publishers had to opt in to the index, it wouldn’t have necessarily included every publisher.
Okay, so… no real scandal there. The article does make a big deal of the fact that Facebook blocked government websites, and even implies repeatedly that Facebook deliberately did so to put pressure on the government to change its policy… but then 55 (55!) paragraphs into the article, the reporters admit that the internal documents they saw shows that the government website blocking was a legitimate mistake.
On the first day of the action, Facebook executives discussed that the platform had blocked about 17,000 pages as news that shouldn’t have been, of which 2,400 were “high priority” pages such as government agencies and nonprofits that they were working to unblock first, according to emails viewed by the Journal.
I mean, maybe I’m just a small country blogger, but if you’re going to spend all this time hinting at a smoking gun and how the company “deliberately caused havoc… to influence [the] new law” then maybe you shouldn’t wait until paragraph 55 to say, well, actually, the thing we spent many previous paragraphs talking about being really awful, was a legitimate accident that the company spotted almost immediately and moved to fix?
Look, there are many, many reasons why Facebook is a terrible company doing terrible things, and there’s little reason to trust the company to do the right thing when the wrong thing always seems to be the company’s top choice. But this whole article seems bizarrely empty of any actual support of its central premise.
Yes, Facebook broadly blocked news links for a little while until the law was slightly adjusted, but under the law, letting any links to news through would have triggered a provision that effectively would have enabled the government to simply order Facebook to pay huge sums to media companies. It seems like a perfectly logical and reasonable step to respond to such a move by blocking news links, and even more so to block broadly to avoid accidentally tripping the wire to trigger the law. And, yes, the overly broad blocking did include some government websites, but as the article itself admits if you make it all the way down to paragraph 55, the company immediately recognized those issues and set to work on fixing them, though it wanted to proceed cautiously to avoid accidentally triggering the law.
It’s easy to hate on Facebook — again, the company does a lot of terrible things — but this seems like yet another case where the journalists really badly wanted to tell a story of something evil, but the actual documents didn’t support the story… so they just wrote it anyway.