The great Facebook shoot-out is not over.  The six-guns may be back in the holsters, but Facebook has made it clear it is not shucking its shell on the ground.  News pages may have been restored, but Facebook reserves the right again to shut down news feeds.  

The government made some concessions and, finally Facebook accepted the inevitable.  The concessions concern the process of the negotiation of fees and of alternate ways in which Facebook may support public interest journalism. And discretion is vested in the Treasurer, not the Minister for Communications, seemingly without much legislative guidance, to approve that support.

It was a remarkable sight.  The government of a sovereign nation in a stand-off with a transnational corporation about the government’s right to pass legislation.  And on display was the hubris of a corporation, whose annual turn-over for the year 2020, at US$86 billion, exceeds the GDP of many countries.

But the government was always going to win.  While the news content of Facebook is small, as the company insists, the documentation of news choice by clients is an important part of the Facebook rivers of gold.  Facebook probably knows more about you than does your family, and its key business is monetising that knowledge.

To know you is to love you

The social media platforms all do it.  Tik Tok is particularly good at it, but Google and Facebook are the big players, financially speaking.  That knowledge of each user is what guides the algorithm’s choice of topics for you to read or view and also guides placement of advertising.

News choice is crucial as is a litmus test of political inclination.  That’s the knowledge that allowed Cambridge Analytica in 2016, using Facebook data illicitly obtained, to support the Trump election campaign.  News choice easily identified the Trump voter but, more important, it identified the undecided voter whose opinion could be swayed in Trump’s favour. That voter is the key to winning secret ballots, anywhere, so preserving access to news choice is vital to Facebook’s file on you.

But these contretemps also shone further light on other aspects of Facebook’s operation.  The shut-down of news feeds had an unexpected outcome: hundreds of other sites, many not-for-profit charities and arts organisation were also shut out.  

This collateral damage was distinctly bad publicity for Facebook and, doubtless, a spur to some reconciliation with government.

AI on the loose

The collateral damage adds weight to an argument that I have advanced since Mark Zukerberg’s appearance before the US Senate in November 2017.  Not surprising, the transcript revealed that the Senators knew little about how Facebook functions. But it seemed to confirm that Zukerberg’s own knowledge of the subtleties of Facebook, if he was speaking truthfully to the US Senate, was limited.

That should be unsurprising. Facebook is run by an aggregation of algorithms, interacting in complex ways with little human intervention.  Without doubt, individual parts are understood by its programmers but not how the whole functions as an organism.  It is a massive piece of artificial intelligence capable of acting outside human command, at least in the short term.

Because of this lack of knowledge of overall function, the programmers who designed the exclusion of Australia news sites were not able to anticipate the collateral damage to arts, health and civic sites, because the differences were too subtle for the present algorithms to discern. But, endowed with artificial intelligence, they will learn.  That is the nature of AI.

It should be of concern that a huge and distributed electronic organism, with intimate knowledge of its users, over two billion daily users and more, is capable of acting semi autonomously.  And its human supervisors can only manage it reactively, that is correcting its mistakes after the mistake become apparent.

And there is the question of access to knowledge.  Should a semi-autonomous aggregation of algorithms be trusted to be a gatekeeper of news?  Western democracies have many flaws, but when private enterprises, whose first lawful commitment is to maximise shareholder value, have near monopoly control over the editorial selection and dissemination of news, and serve only profit, then sovereignty is under siege, and democracy impossible to maintain.

The battle of the ‘bergs 

Another big issue that arose from this battle of the ‘bergs, Mark Zukerberg verse Josh Frydenberg, was that the whole world was watching.  If anything this probably strengthened Frydenberg’s resolve. The social media platforms saw the Australian legislation as the thin edge of the tax wedge. 

The EU moved to introduce this kind of legislation in 2017, but stalled.  France was tentatively moving this way in frustration with the EU, but the Trump administration threatened tariffs on wine and luxury goods from France which stalled the progress.   Spain has also dallied with the idea, but has hastened slowly.  Last year, the Trump administration told the Australian government the measures breached the US-Aust. FTA, and hence, were illegal. The Biden administration has remained silent.

This is the first government initiative that US interests haven’t managed to crush or slow to a crawl. If the Australian government were to win, governments all around the world will want a share of revenue, and that means goodbye for Facebook to a share price above US$270, the digital rivers of gold, and lucrative dividends. 

As a result of the Australian government taking on the social media giants, other governments are introducing similar measures. With Facebook’s capitulation, others will follow.  Google has been a bit smarter than Facebook. It has been doing deals that will pass as acceptable under the regulations. 

The stated aim of the government was to support public interest journalism.  At the end of round one, with the legislation through parliament, whether that goal can be achieved is unclear.  The big players, News Ltd, Nine Entertainment Ltd and Australia Community Media, Seven and Ten, will certainly benefit in varying degrees. But, whether the dozens of independent community papers, papers of and for the people, like the Manning Community News, will see a cent, is completely opaque.

Vincent O’Donnell

Media specialist and researcher

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