Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: All aboard the good ship Facebook

Little choice for content providers but to climb aboard and submit to the algorithmic cruise-director.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photo / Bloomberg
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photo / Bloomberg

Thwack! Blam! What an outstanding pugilistic display. New Zealand's most insatiable fighter exploded into the public eye on the weekend, throwing his weight and his fists about - furious, inflamed, indefatigable.

I'm referring, of course, to Dean Lonergan, of boxing promoter Duco, who made Joseph Parker's 12-round points heavyweight victory over Carlos Takam seem every bit as delicate as a daisy-chain as he puff-chestedly warned those "lowlifes" who had illegally streamed the event that he would "mercilessly" pursue them.

And while the prospect of Lonergan squaring up against Moze Galo, the self-styled couch-potato Robin Hood of Porirua, may make a tasty Fight for Life, it's noteworthy how little of the attention has focused on the means by which the event was illicitly shared. Galo and numerous others reportedly took advantage of one of the new services offered by the internet's own heavyweight, Facebook.

Facebook has responded by saying, in essence, don't punch the messenger.

"When we made Facebook Live available, we anticipated that it would be used by people to share special moments with their family and friends, whether they're visiting a new place, cooking a new favourite recipe, or just wanting to share some thoughts," it said in a statement, going on to explain that "reporting tools" are in place "to enable content owners to report potential infringement".

This is by now a familiar refrain - of a kind with the positions adopted by the other giant of the internet, Google, in relation to its YouTube service, and indeed by the site that ended up getting Kim Dotcom into trouble, Megaupload.

We're simply a platform, they say. We have mechanisms in place for copyright owners to get in touch, but otherwise we're just the market square, we can't be responsible for everything sold at every stall.

And for the most part, that's fair enough, if only on a practical level. Except that the reality with Google and, especially, Facebook, is that they are more than just the market square: they're becoming the town square, the movie complex, the postal service, the news service, and more besides. More than half of all New Zealanders are active Facebook users.

There are more than 1.5 billion worldwide. The average user, according to Mark Zuckerberg, spends 50 minutes a day on Facebook and its other products, Instagram and Messenger.

Promoter Dean Lonergan of Duco Events. Photo / Doug Sherring
Promoter Dean Lonergan of Duco Events. Photo / Doug Sherring

Why roam out into the wider world web when it's all there on Facebook: apart from the time-honoured functions of the site - perfunctory birthday wishes to an old friend you'd probably no longer recognise on the street and endless baby photos - you can communicate with friends, make bookings, watch a dodgy stream posted by some dude in Porirua.

Soon it could be banking, shopping, who knows what else. Facebook is becoming like a cruise ship version of the world: everything's there, it's all so easy, and you can have anything you want as long as it's something the algorithmic cruise-director thinks you want, or need.

Already, the news media are being integrated into HMS Facebook. Launched last year and recently expanded to all-comers, Instant Articles allows publishers, or to use the romantic term, "content providers", to place articles directly on the platform, so that readers needn't click away from the Facebook universe to digest it.

Zuckerberg wants it to be "the primary news experience people have", and is growing fast. Publishers, with a mixture of enthusiasm, tentativeness and outright desperation, have taken up the offer, which offers a decent share of advertising revenue.

Facebook have gone some way to dispelling early fears, by making changes to the presentation and accounting requested by publishers - it's a symbiotic relationship, they say.

And they're right, but it is not an equal relationship. Facebook has the eyeballs and the purse-strings. Who says they might not change the deal down the track? Last month Zuckerberg announced advertising had grown by 50 per cent in a year.

It is quite a different story for traditional publishers, trying to support their journalism as newspaper circulations slide and advertising income dwindles.

With the internet prizefighters already taking the lion's share of the digital advertising dollar - one of the chief reasons that the Commerce Commission is unlikely to stand in the way of the big New Zealand newspaper group merger - publishers have little choice but to jump aboard.

The more that Facebook becomes, among other things, the place that people get their news, the more it assumes an editorial role - drawing on user selections, friends' preferences, overall popularity, and who knows what else, the hallowed algorithm assigns priority in the way old-fashioned humans do for newspaper front pages or bulletins.

Yet Zuckerberg and co continue to insist they're just messengers. A couple of months ago, asked if Facebook was "a publisher, or a distribution platform", Zuckerberg said, "Definitely a distribution platform ... We are a technology company."

You don't need to mainline too much George Orwell, however, to harbour a reservation or two about Facebook's role as the almighty mediator of news. Last week, allegations were published suggesting that the Facebook Trending Topics box - separate to Instant Articles, and overseen by human "news curators" - was being actively rigged against conservative American content.

Zuckerberg, who is opposed to Donald Trump, took it seriously, pledging to investigate, saying, "if we find anything against our principles, you have my commitment that we will take additional steps to address it".

Those principles? "Every tool we build is designed to give more people a voice and bring our global community together. For as long as I'm leading this company this will always be our mission."

I like the Zuck. I believe him. But he won't lead the company forever. Shouldn't there at least be some transparency about the mechanism, the algorithmic alchemy, that decides which articles you should see?

After all, not all of Silicon Valley's billionaires - take for example the Trump-supporting, New Zealand loving, and big-chunk-of-Facebook owning Peter Thiel, reported by Forbes yesterday to have secretly bankrolled Hulk Hogan's massive law suit against the website Gawker - are as cuddly as our Mark.

The rise of Facebook, Google, and their ilk has been breathtaking. It is hardly a surprise that public regulators have been slow to keep up - but they must at least try. As must the tax man. In the year 2014, Facebook paid $43,000 in New Zealand tax - less than half Bill English's personal annual PAYE - on reported revenues of $1.2 million.

There is no reason to suspect illegality, but that figure is clearly just a fraction of the income from New Zealand advertisers. Australia's move to crack down on multinationals shifting profits abroad to avoid tax - it's so-called "Google tax" - is a good model to emulate.

Following the birth of his daughter late last year, Zuckerberg wrote newborn Max a long and heartfelt open letter (posted on Facebook, obviously). He pledged to devote the bulk of his personal fortune to good causes as part of a "moral responsibility to all children in the next generation".

Choice one, Mark. And another way to do it would be by pledging to pay a morally defensible tax bill.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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