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Facebook and Google can survive Australia's new content law. Can you?

Laws should protect cyberspace, not hurt it; but tech giants like Facebook and Google aren’t helping the cause.
Illustration of the facebook icon hovering over the flag of Australia blocking streams of text that read,\"Breaking News\".
A new law in Australia prompted Facebook to ban access to news content in the country.Anjali Nair / MSNBC

If you get most of your news from Facebook, first of all, stop doing that. But second, be grateful if you’re not in Australia. On Wednesday, Australians woke up to Facebook announcing it was implementing a total freeze on all news posts on the platform, in response to a new Australian law seeking to charge tech platforms for linking to news stories.

Is the Australian law a good law? That’s hard to answer.

There are two issues to discuss here, and both are unfortunately often conflated. First, is it troubling that a single technology company has the power to effectively cut off information access for an entire nation? Sure, of course it is. But, is the Australian law a good law? That’s harder to answer. But whatever your argument is, Australia’s proposed news media law may have deeply problematic consequences for free speech and access to information on the internet.

As mentioned, the proposed law would require platforms like Facebook and Google to pay news organizations for news content posted on their sites. Understandably, this is not a scenario that these platform companies want, as it would most definitely cut into their bottom line. By shutting down all news content for Australian users, Facebook is essentially protesting the bill by showing Australians what could happen if the bill were to pass.

Right now, tech platforms can host news content at no charge, including links to newspaper websites, with few limitations (at least in most democratic nations). This Australia law and others like it could set a dangerous precedent in limiting the ability of technology platforms to freely host content for all of us to access.

Personally, I’m not worried about Facebook, Google or the other tech titans here. What I am worried about is that laws like this one can have long-reaching effects on the future of the internet. While Big Tech companies may be able to pay fees and comply with cumbersome regulations, small startups, nonprofits and individual users will likely be unable to compete.

Laws like this one can have long-reaching effects on the future of the internet.

While Facebook is already receiving a lot of flak for blocking Australian news content, fewer people are paying attention to how Google has responded to the proposed law. Instead of protesting, Google simply struck a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. to access and use the publication’s news content.

Google did essentially the same thing that Facebook is doing now in 2014, when Google pulled Google News from Spain due to new publishing fees. Google also recently agreed to pay certain French publishers for the rights to host news snippets, in a deal that some believe disadvantages smaller newspapers and news publishers.

Both Facebook and Google are showing Australians how much power they have as technology platforms. But more important, they’re showing why this law could have dangerous consequences. Tech giants can make splashy protest shutdowns and pay for big media deals. Smaller companies and nonprofits can’t compete, but are often swept up in laws that restrict social media companies and online platforms.

Australian legislators likely crafted this law with good intent. It is true that newspapers and traditional news media organizations need help. The ad-driven metrics of the data economy have starved even legacy publications and have contributed to a decimation of local news outlets. This is dangerous for democracy, in Australia and everywhere in the world, where the free press is crucial for shining a light on corruption and injustice and protecting freedom of expression.

But laws that limit the ability of individuals to access the news and information are always dangerous, as are laws that restrict the ability of individuals to post and share news content.

Tech giants can make splashy protest shutdowns and pay for big media deals. Smaller companies and non-profits can’t compete.

Facebook has a huge audience of users who rely on the platform for news — in the U.S., it's about a third of the population — and newspapers depend on clicks from those users. News organizations have bristled at this power dynamic, where newspapers have little power against Facebook and its algorithms.

This is why it’s important that the Australia bill is called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, and why the concept of a “bargaining power imbalance” between news outlets and platforms is mentioned multiple times in the bill.

It’s also a good sign that the bill includes a revenue minimum for applicability, which would likely allow smaller technology platforms and nonprofits to avoid having to pay for posting news content. Focusing on the power imbalance is useful, and future lawmakers must remember to craft any intermediary liability and platform governance laws to address power imbalances while protecting smaller players.

Regardless of what happens with Australia’s bill, other nations may soon follow with similar laws, limiting the ability of tech platforms to freely host content. The internet is an amazing space for free expression, communication and access to knowledge. It’s a modern miracle that we can hop online and read the news from anywhere in the world and communicate with people, no matter the distance between us. Laws should protect cyberspace, not hurt it.

Governments, media conglomerates and Big Tech will continue to fight for our attention and the profits that come with it. In the meantime, all we can do is support the news outlets and journalists we believe in, while we still can.