How do you ‘unfriend’ a whole country? The giant Facebook conglomerate has found the answer.
Never mind that Australia is a key Western ally with a democratically elected government.
Facebook has simply turned its face against the Australian public and is censoring what they can see in a dispute over who pays for news.
No doubt the stakes are high for the social media site’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg. Millions of dollars would be at risk if Facebook had to compensate media companies for the news stories it lifts and reproduces.
But it is no exaggeration to say that for the rest of us, the stakes are higher still.
What we are witnessing is nothing less than a battle for the future of our democracies. So it is vital that we join the fight to protect our freedoms.
At the heart of all this is people’s access to information – something that dates back even further than Gutenberg’s invention of a revolutionary method of printing.
Facebook has simply turned its face against the Australian public and is censoring what they can see in a dispute over who pays for news, writes TOM TUGENDHAT. Pictured: Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook’s ruthless decision to block Australians from seeing or posting any links to domestic or foreign news outlets on its platforms was a response to a planned law requiring it to pay for news shared on its site.
Its argument is that it, and other social media organisations, should not be governed by rules and restrictions that apply to other publishers and broadcasters.
With breathtaking arrogance, they claim they are unique – a modern-day open space like the Agora of ancient Greek cities where citizens were free to meet, exchange ideas, see friends and do business.
In other words, that they are an essential service and piece of modern infrastructure – not a publisher.
Beyond even the reach of nation states, these behemoth tech corporations have created levels of innovation and expression the world has never before known. Or so they like to claim.
In theory, what is wrong with such a vast, neutral, open field of dreams? The truth is that there is nothing neutral about these Silicon Valley gods and the future they promote.
They wish, in the motto of Facebook (whose income last year was £61 billion), to ‘move fast and break things’. In their eyes, they are heroes: agents of free speech and truth in a corrupt world.
Make no mistake, we are witnessing a power shift as the likes of Facebook inveigle their way into our everyday lives. But in the process, democratic institutions are getting pushed ever further to the margins.
Shutting down the news feeds on Australian accounts is also a sign of the vast power that such companies wield.
Whereas Australia has a population of 25 million, Facebook has 2.8 billion users globally.
By removing the news feeds and manipulating the information available to Australians, Zuckerberg is not operating in a neutral space but actually closing down freedom of speech.
Facebook isn’t the only social media site guilty of hypocrisy and double standards.
Despite enjoying a huge boost to its profile – and its £1.1 billion a year income – from Donald Trump’s compulsive use of its service, Twitter unilaterally decided to block him. So much for being a neutral space.
Showing their true colours, the unelected Silicon Valley censors stopped people from seeing the thoughts of the democratically elected leader of the Western world.
They decided it was in their own best commercial interests to do so. Then there is YouTube, which contributed to Google and Facebook’s 80 per cent share of the £14 billion UK digital advertising market in 2019.
It is true that the video platform has taken steps to make it harder for people to watch some of the crazier conspiracy theorists online.
But that was a long time coming. For years, its links and recommendations led viewers down what could sometimes be described as circles of hell, from one grotesque distortion of reality to the next.
Facebook’s ruthless decision to block Australians from seeing or posting any links to domestic or foreign news outlets on its platforms was a response to a planned law requiring it to pay for news shared on its site. Pictured: Zuckerberg
Its argument is that it, and other social media organisations, should not be governed by rules and restrictions that apply to other publishers and broadcasters. Pictured: Stock image
YouTube chiefs lamely said they couldn’t control what others posted. Why was it, then, that pirated versions of the latest Hollywood blockbuster never made it to the site? Money and the threat of the law talk.
It would be perverse not to accept that these vast new enterprises transform communication and empower many. But that does not mean there should be no checks on these tech moguls’ power.
In democracies, their decisions should not be absolute. At last, thankfully, politicians across the world are realising the possible dangers that their electorates will have been influenced by billion-dollar firms based thousands of miles away with no democratic oversight.
Equally chilling, what are we to make of Twitter’s co-operation with the Chinese government – state propagandists who have risibly used the social media platform to claim that its citizens enjoy freedom of religion?
There’s scant mention, if any, of mass arrests of Muslims in Xinjiang province, the destruction of mosques and cultural sites and the violation of religious freedom.
The only note of warning on such tweets is a link connecting them to the Chinese government.
Contrast that with the autocratic treatment of Trump, who found his words corrected by Twitter.
Pictured: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference on February 19
Whatever you think of Trump, 74 million people voted for him in November and his actions as President were subject to the decisions of an independent judiciary.
Indeed, so much for the tech giants’ attitude towards accountability. Zuckerberg refused to be questioned by MPs on the Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport committee while Google, Facebook and Twitter refused to meet the British Prime Minister after being accused of trying to deflect blame for terrorist propaganda spread through their services.
That’s why this global alliance against Facebook’s bullying and Twitter’s censorship of free speech matters so much.
This isn’t just a fight over who pays for journalism. It’s about who controls information and power.
We’re at a pivotal moment in human history, just as was the case in the years when an explosion in ideas brought in the Reformation, the Enlightenment and, eventually, universal suffrage.
But with Gutenberg and the right to print, quite correctly, came and accountability for what was published.
There must always be democratic controls on how society lives and the existence of safeguards to protect the public.
Traditional media have editors and publishers who work under law and can be taken to court.
What redress do we have against the likes of Facebook and Twitter, let alone Chinese-owned TikTok?
The Australians are right and we owe it to their resolve that we follow their lead.
The tech giants must be made accountable, subject to democratic control – and pay the price when they get it wrong.
Freedom, after all, is not the preserve of boardrooms in Silicon Valley but a right that has been hard won for people and institutions over centuries.
It is much, much too valuable to sacrifice to the overweening power of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk.
This post was first published on DailyMail.