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Facebook to restore news pages after deal with Australian govt

(ATF) A compromise has been reached between Facebook and the Australian government, which will see the internet giant restore local news pages after the government agreed to amend its proposed law. The bill will force tech giants to pay for media content displayed on their platforms.

Australia and the social media giant have been locked in a standoff for more than a week after the government introduced legislation that will force it and Google to negotiate with companies that generate online news content.

Facebook blocked all news content and several state government and emergency department accounts last week.

But a deal appears to have been struck after a series of talks between Frydenberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the weekend.

Australia will offer four amendments, which includes a change to the mandatory arbitration mechanism used when the tech giants cannot reach a deal with publishers over fair payment for displaying news content.

“We are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognise the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them,” Facebook said in a statement posted online.

“As a result of these changes, we can now work to further our investment in public interest journalism, and restore news on Facebook for Australians in the coming days,” Will Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia, said.

The amendments include a two-month mediation period before the government-appointed arbitrator intervenes, giving the parties more time to reach a private deal. 

It also inserts a rule that an internet company’s contribution to the “sustainability of the Australian news industry” via existing deals be taken into account.

‘Proxy battle’ for other countries

The issue has been widely watched internationally as other countries such as Canada and Britain consider similar legislation.

National Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Tuesday that Australia has been a “proxy battle” for countries around the world, such as Europe and North America, that want better outcomes – compensation for media outlets ravaged by the loss of advertising – from two of the biggest internet companies.

“These amendments will provide further clarity to digital platforms and news media businesses about the way the code is intended to operate and strengthen the framework for ensuring news media businesses are fairly remunerated,” Frydenberg said in a statement. 

Australia had until Monday said it would make no further changes to the legislation.

A spokesman for Australian publisher and broadcaster Nine Entertainment Co. welcomed the government’s compromise, which it said moved “Facebook back into the negotiations with Australian media organisations.”

The compromise means that Facebook and Google – the main targets of the law – are unlikely to be penalised so long as they reach some deals with local media firms to pay for news.

The two companies had objected to legislation that made negotiations with media companies mandatory and gave an independent Australian arbiter the right to impose a settlement.

“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to reach an agreement with the Australian government and appreciate the constructive discussions we’ve had” Facebook’s Easton said.

Despite earlier threats to pull its services from Australia over the legislation, Google had already softened its stance and brokered deals worth tens of millions of dollars with a variety of media companies, including the two largest: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Nine Entertainment.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on Tuesday (Feb 23).

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Rod Sims, the main architect of the law, was not immediately available for comment. At a speech earlier on Tuesday, Sims declined to answer questions about the standoff on the grounds that it was before parliament. 

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years and has a family in Bangkok.

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