Australia health chief pulls ads from Facebook amid news blackout

Australia’s health department has confirmed it will no longer advertise on Facebook, further escalating a government feud with the social media giant after it blocked news content from its platform across the country.

What’s the deal?

  • The Australian government is seeking to hit Facebook where it hurts, withdrawing all advertising on the platform as part of a tit-for-tat war of attrition.

  • Facebook’s blacklisting comes on the cusp of a US$20m public information campaign designed to convince Australians to get vaccinated to counter anti-vaccine sentiment – much of it propagated on Facebook.

  • Explaining the decision to distance from the Silicon Valley giant, health minister Greg Hunt struggled to even mention his nemesis by name, saying: “All of our funds will be used. We will continue to post on that particular channel, we just won’t be boosting.”

  • The decision highlights a deepening sense of anger at the heart of the Australian government over Facebook’s refusal to kowtow to a proposed law that would oblige digital platforms to compensate media outlets for online content.

  • Facebook has expressed implacable opposition to the idea, going so far as to block virtually all Australian news on its platform – a stance now shared by Google, which has also ostracized the nation in a show of solidarity.

WTF is going on with tech giants in Australia?

  • Unfazed by these actions, Australia is doubling down on its plans, declaring that it has no intention of amending the controversial bill.

  • Sensing it occupies the moral high ground, the government said: “Australian-generated news content by Australian-generated news organizations can and should be paid for, and done so in a fair and legitimate way.”

  • Should negotiations fail, the government has the legal authority to appoint an arbiter to determine the level at which any imposed content licensing fees should be set.

  • In a sign of Australia’s increasing digital isolation, Alphabet-owned Google has also weighed in, blocking Australian news providers from the search results of 1% of Australians as a shot across the bows.

  • Google has already blinked in the stand-off, however, after agreeing to pay for content from top Australian outlets including News Corp.

Why does it matter?

  • Speaking to The Drum last week, Stuart McLennan, senior vice-president for Asia Pacific at Rakuten Advertising, said Facebook’s block will potentially dent the income of publishers.

  • Facebook is well established as a big fish of the digital ecosystem, with many Australian websites relying on the social network to drive traffic via shared content, and in turn generate greater ad revenues.

  • On the other side of the equation, consumers face being subjected to a rising tide of disinformation as silenced sources of genuine news are replaced by more illegitimate ’fake news’.

  • Should Google make good on its threat to shutter its search engine in Australia, the effects could be even more dramatic, with the service currently accounting for 51% of all online advertising and 90% of online searches according to the Australia Competition and Consumer Commission.