Facebook “erred on the side of over-enforcement” in removing links to hundreds of non-media organisations in Australia, Nick Clegg has admitted, in a blogpost defending the social media company’s short-lived news ban there.
The former UK deputy prime minister, now Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs and communications, said the tech firm had been “forced into [the] position” of blocking content designated as news after the Australian government refused to back down over plans to require it to negotiate with news publishers for payment for content.
But in his first significant public intervention on the controversy, Clegg acknowledged that public service content including health department and emergency services sites, family violence support information, and community news hubs should not have been caught up in the ban. While some pages were quickly restored, others had been expected to take up to a week to even be reviewed, before the ban was rescinded on Tuesday.
“It wasn’t a decision taken lightly,” he wrote in a post headlined The Real Story of What Happened With News on Facebook in Australia. “But when it came, we had to take action quickly because it was legally necessary to do so before the new law came into force, and so we erred on the side of over-enforcement. In doing so, some content was blocked inadvertently. Much of this was, thankfully, reversed quickly.”
Facebook reversed the ban on Tuesday after the government agreed to make minor changes to its news media code, allowing the company more time to negotiate payments and giving it a possible exemption from the law if it made a big enough contribution to the Australian media voluntarily.
While critics have viewed Facebook’s action as an anti-democratic step designed to warn other jurisdictions off similar actions designed to protect journalism, others have argued that the Australian proposals were unworkable and overly influenced by News Corp, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch.
While Clegg did not refer to News Corp by name, he wrote: “It is ironic that some of the biggest publishers that have long advocated for free markets and voluntary commercial undertakings now appear to be in favour of state-sponsored price setting.”
He added: “Of course, the internet has been disruptive for the news industry. But he argued that under the proposals, “Facebook would have been forced to pay potentially unlimited amounts of money to multinational media conglomerates … without even so much as a guarantee that it is used to pay for journalism.”
Clegg’s stance presents an awkward association for members of his old party in the UK, the Liberal Democrats, who came out strongly against the plans and sought to distance themselves from their former leader.
Jamie Stone, the party’s culture and media spokesperson, said: “What is in effect a move to muzzle the voice of a democratically elected government [by an] international corporation is entirely wrong.
“It is ultimately up to Nick Clegg to be accountable to what he does and believes.”
Clegg acknowledged in his post that “there are legitimate concerns to be addressed about the size and power of tech companies, just as there are serious issues about the disruption the internet has caused to the news industry.”
But he claimed there was no truth to the idea that Facebook was stealing or taking original journalism for its own benefit and claimed that “many users say they would like to see even less news and political content”.
He said making Facebook pay for news content was “like forcing carmakers to fund radio stations because people might listen to them in the car – and letting the stations set the price.”
He also drew attention to what he claimed was evidence of its recognition that “quality journalism is at the heart of how open societies function” in its deals to pay for content with media outlets including the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Daily Mail in the UK as well as local publishers.