Facebook caves to Australia's call for explanations of News Feed algo changes

But The Social Network™ won't pay for news and tells publishers it can get along just fine without them


Facebook has revealed it will happily share details of changes to its News Feed algorithms with Australia's government, but said it won't pay local media organisations when social network users share their content online.

The Social Network's™ position is outlined in a new post regarding and submission to [PDF] the agency overseeing development of Australia's proposed "News media bargaining code".

That code was recommended by the nation's Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) after a Digital Platforms Inquiry found that big tech companies have had a deleterious effect on Australian media by out-competing them for advertising dollars, reducing their capacity to deliver the public good of strong news services that entertain and inform the nation. Among the recommendations the Inquiry made was for Google and Facebook to explain how they rank news content and that big tech companies should pay to carry Australian news and funnel that money to publishers.

Australia's government first consulted with big tech about how they might chip in, but then broke off negotiations on grounds they were going nowhere fast and said it would instead deliver a plan to have Google and Facebook pay news publishers.

Big tech was given the chance to comment and Facebook's proposal, which emerged today, bluntly states that since its revenue has only risen since Mark Zuckerberg decided to "fix Facebook" by making news content harder to find on the platform.

"If there were no news content available on Facebook in Australia, we are confident the impact on Facebook's community metrics and revenues in Australia would not be significant, because news content is highly substitutable and most users do not come to Facebook with the intention of viewing news," the submission states. But a post by Mia Garlick, Facebook ANZ's director of public policy, estimated that traffic sent to publishers as a result of Facebook posts was "worth approximately AU$195.8 million" based on "what the average costs would be for similar activity through our paid advertising tools".

"We delivered billions of opportunities for publishers to monetise their stories, gain new paying subscribers, serve ads, and keep Australians on their websites," Garlick wrote.

Facebook's submission makes the following observation:

Given the social value and benefit to news publishers, we would strongly prefer to continue enabling news publishers' content to be available on our platform.

Which sounds an awful lot like Facebook saying if Australia makes it pay for news, it just won't link to it in future. And good luck operating a profitable media sector without the traffic that comes from The Social Network™.

Facebook is willing to "set a reasonable framework to encourage commercial arrangements between digital platforms and publishers … that: upholds the primacy of commercial negotiations between digital platforms and publishers."

The company also says a workable code would "require transparency about significant changes made by digital platforms to their central algorithms used to rank (i.e., order) content, including news content, for users (which for Facebook is the News Feed algorithms)."

"In the spirit of providing news publishers with substantial transparency, Facebook supports in-principle a reasonable requirement to notify publishers when it makes changes to the News Feed algorithms with a significant impact on news content," the submission states, adding: "It is important that such a requirement be limited to truly 'significant' changes, given the sheer number and frequency of ranking improvements Facebook makes to enhance our users' experience on the platform, most of which have relatively minimal impact on news publishers."

That's something the ACCC's final report wanted, as it felt that "the lack of warning provided by digital platforms to news media businesses of changes to key algorithms relating to the display of news content or news referral links" made it hard for publishers to rely on social networks or Google as a source of traffic.

Facebook is also happy to share first-party data with publishers, and "to publish information about the factors that inform the news content that people see, and the order in which they see it."

But the company is also plain that it won't allow itself and Google to be the only companies impacted by any legislation.

Australia's government has signalled it is on track to deliver its proposed code in July. The Register has popcorn on standby for its debut. As will regulators around the world because Australia has form setting useful precedents: in 2012 the nation made plain packaging compulsory for cigarettes, sparking court cases that it won and have since seen brands vanish from cigarette packets in several other nations.

If Australia can reach a deal to get money flowing to news organisations from big tech, or even just get Facebook explaining its algorithms a little more and a little more often, it could set a more-than-useful precedent. ®

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