Why the UK should be worried about the standoff between Facebook and Australia

The saga shows how technology giants, with their almost limitless power, can warp our democracies

February 25, 2021
Google threatened to remove its search engine while Facebook banned publication of news and media on its platform in Australia. Photo: Pat Benic/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News
Google threatened to remove its search engine while Facebook banned publication of news and media on its platform in Australia. Photo: Pat Benic/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News

A spectre is haunting British politics; the spectre of no-platforming. The Secretary for Education has recently warned darkly about “the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.” So-called “free speech activists” conjure up apparent threats to foundational principles of democracy while column inches are filled with prophecies of liberties fatally eroded.  

They are right to worry, but wrong in their target. There is a threat of no-platforming and the erosion of foundational rights to speech and assembly—and it takes the form of the giant tech platform monopolies that now occupy the commanding heights of the digital economy.   

The trigger for the latest confrontation over speech was a draft law in Australia that would require digital platforms like Facebook and Google to pay media companies for content that appears on their news feeds and search results. With more and more people accessing news directly through the tech giants, traditional media companies have lost out in advertising revenue—81 per cent of digital advertising spend in Australian media goes to the Facebook-Google duopoly, while the pair command almost 70 per cent of the UK’s digital advertising market. The proposed law—a test case of global importance—was an attempt to reverse this. 

The response by the tech giants was swift. Google threatened to remove its search engine while Facebook banned publication of news and media on its platform in Australia. A whole swathe of organisations and voices were effectively “no-platformed” from a space which millions of Australians use to access information, news, and opinion in a struggle over profit and power. Not only were posts from news organisations inaccessible to users, but also official government pages, including information about health and public services. The move has been denounced as an “attack on democracy” by critics who warn that hate speech and misinformation are likely to fill the void left by the withdrawal of reliable information. 

Although the situation was resolved this time—notably only after the Australian government made amendments to the proposed law—the saga speaks to how these technology giants, with their almost limitless power, can warp our democracies. Although it purports to be a wholesome, “digital town hall” for the world, Facebook is not a civic square whose sole purpose is to support and broadcast speech. It is a corporation seeking to maximise profits for its shareholders from a business model that relies on gaining and monetising our attention. Any effort to limit this ability—for example, by making content more expensive for the company to publish—is a threat to its vast wealth. And it is vast. Facebook, for example, recently announced quarterly revenues of $28.07 billion (Alphabet, which owns Google, made a staggering $46.43 billion.) Anything that threatens to disrupt their business model therefore risks serious money and will trigger a serious response.  

The events in Australia, therefore, raise important questions around the ability of states to regulate the power of the monopolistic platforms, companies which sit at the heart of the digital, and increasingly physical, economy. But they also raise profound questions around how we can build a digital and media ecosystem that genuinely supports free speech and communication. 

What seems clear, not just in Australia but everywhere, is that we can no longer rely on the digital platforms to be the clearing house of news and information. To continue to do so will exacerbate the crisis of misinformation eroding our democracies. But the alternative is not, as one Australian politician joked, to turn to MySpace instead. Instead, we need a more fundamental shift in how platforms work if we want to expand our capacity for free speech and communication.  

A new digital media settlement will require challenging the power of the existing platforms through imaginative use of antitrust action. Steps by the US Department of Justice and EU Commission to challenge the monopolistic power of the tech giants is a first step—but now is the time to start talking about how platforms can be reconfigured, and data ownership reimagined. 

The outcome of events in Australia remains unclear; what is certain is that strengthening our media and democracies will require us to actively reimagine the digital platforms, not just curtail their growing power. Politically, the prize of reining in the power of Big Tech is great for our democracy as a whole—securing a genuinely free digital sphere is essential.