The Irony of Facebook’s Fight With Australia

It’s tough having no control in a walled internet garden

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

On Wednesday, Facebook exercised its long-threatened nuclear option in its ongoing spat with Australian lawmakers over a pending law that would see it pay news outlets when users interact with their content on its platform, and pulled the plug on Australian media Facebook pages and links.

By Thursday afternoon, one estimate by Business Insider (using Chartbeat data) suggested that Facebook-driven Australian visits to news sites was down 10%, and international visits down 20%. Meanwhile, “Chartbeat’s analysis showed… Australian users remained on Facebook and didn’t switch to other social platforms amid the publisher blackout to get their news fix,” Business Insider reported. “It’s a sign that publishers need Facebook more than the other way around.”

It’s a familiar argument, and one Facebook worked hard for years to fix in its favour. Facebook offered news organizations a Faustian bargain: the possibility of reaching billions of people, but only if they agreed to Facebook’s content rules — rules Facebook started changing constantly, putting news organizations increasingly at the mercy of the platform’s opaque algorithms to keep those clicks. Facebook is now critical infrastructure for news, for better or (mostly) for worse.

As it happens, it’s become the exact same thing for its users, too. We agreed to the same basic deal the news media did. We signed up, eager to connect with friends and family, and have eventually found, a few years down the road, that it has become for many of us the mediator to most (if not all) of life’s activities — again, for better or for worse.

Facebook managed this because it delivered to its users exactly what they want, over and over — whether that’s friends, an audience, readers, followers, customers, or the purported secrets of the universe. It achieves this via its tracking capabilities. Facebook follows us around, gathering data so that our feed is ever more precise — for us, and for ads placed against it.

This endless data collection is where Facebook’s other major ongoing dispute — with Apple — factors in.

The gist of the conflict between Apple and Facebook is this: Apple and its CEO, Tim Cook, specifically, feels that Facebook collects far too much information from users without them knowing it. Apple aims to change that. In its Privacy Day blog last month, Apple outlined what it’s calling App Tracking Transparency, which will soon “require apps to get the user’s permission before tracking their data across apps or websites owned by other companies.” The app it chose as an example of how the tool will work? Facebook.

Facebook is ready to push back. According to one report, the company is preparing to launch an antitrust suit, alleging that Apple “abused its power in the smartphone market by forcing app developers to abide by App Store rules that Apple’s own apps don’t have to follow.” In other words, Facebook believes that it ought to be able to access users such as it wants on Apple’s platform, and that Apple is arbitrarily changing the rules so that it can’t. Facebook, it turns out, needs Apple more than Apple needs Facebook.

Sounds familiar.


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