Facebook's Australian News Ban Did Demonstrate The Evil Of Zero Rating
from the a massive problem dept
People have been very angry at me for pointing out that Facebook’s decision to ban links to news down under actually made sense — even though Facebook has now cut a deal to return the links. The move was in response to an incredibly poorly thought out law to force Facebook and Google to pay giant news organizations, just because those news organizations couldn’t figure out how to innovate online. One key point: I said that even if Facebook is the worst representative of the “open web,” this move is the right one for the open web. That’s because the alternative is much worse. Since the Australian law would force Google and Facebook to pay for the crime of linking to news, it would set up the incredibly anti-open web concept that you could be forced to pay to link.
Again, as we’ve already explained, this is idiotic. The links give websites free web traffic. Most news organizations, including those down in Australia, employ SEO and social media managers to try to get more links and more traffic from these websites because the links themselves are valuable. And thus, this entire bill is bizarre. It’s saying that not only do you have to give us valuable traffic for free… you also have to pay us. I still can’t think of any reasonable analog, the situation is so insane.
But — some people argue back — Facebook is no champion of the open web. Indeed. I’ve never argued otherwise. It’s not. But this move was important to protect the open internet (and it’s now disappointing that the company has caved). But, of course, this move also has demonstrated why Facebook has, historically, been a danger to the open web as well. And that’s because when it blocked access to news links in Australia, it also did the same for many Pacific islands. And while we’ve mocked Australians who don’t seem to realize they can just go to the websites of news organizations, for some of these Pacific islands, that’s not actually the case. Because of Facebook’s other attacks on the open web.
For years, we’ve pointed out the evil that is Facebook’s “Free Basics” program. This is a form of “zero rating,” in which Facebook would subsidize (or even make free) access in remote parts of the world… but only to Facebook. Facebook, of course, framed this as a way of “connecting the poor” and helping to get affordable internet access to places that didn’t have it. But that’s not true. It only gave them access to Facebook. As many people have pointed out over the years, if Facebook really wanted to subsidize internet access in these parts of the world, it should have have subsidized real access to the wider internet, not just Facebook.
So, now, these two things have collided in the South Pacific. Facebook’s anti-open internet policies with zero rating, and Facebook’s pro-open internet decision to not link if it requires payment. And those who bought into the false prophet of Free Basics, are now suffering:
Across the Pacific, thousands of people are on pre-paid data phone plans which include cheap access to Facebook. Those on limited incomes can get news through the social network, but cannot go to original source websites without using more data, and spending more money.
The region’s largest telco provider, Digicel, with a presence in Fiji, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, offers affordable mobile data plans with free or cheap access to Facebook.
In Australia, news from Pacific sites also appeared to be blocked, a significant impediment for diaspora communities and seasonal workers.
And this, in turn, is creating disinformation risks:
Articles reposted from Australian news sources are often used in the Pacific to rebut misinformation being spread on Facebook, Watson and Howarth said.
“One very popular page in PNG seems to attract more than its fair share of long-longs [an ill-informed person in pidgin] opposing vaccination as the Covid pandemic quietly spreads daily,” Howarth said.
It’s not clear why Facebook cut off news to those Pacific islands in addition to Australia, but it might just be because they cut up the map by regions and lumped the south Pacific islands in with Australia. And, even if it wasn’t that, since Facebook is blocking all links to news sources from Australia to the rest of the world, the Australian news sources that many of the small islands rely on are cut off for users on Facebook’s zero rated plan.
So, yes, of course Facebook itself is no great friend of the open internet. And these two moves have combined to mess up news in the South Pacific. If Facebook actually wanted to support the open internet, it should keep banning news links where governments demand payments, but it should drop the silly “Facebook only” limitation of its zero rating program.