Facebook was damned if it did and damned if it didn't.
The company has been heavily criticised for the way it has handled a breathtaking range of issues. Here though, faced with bad policy, Facebook is now condemned both for exposing users to content, and for attempting to leave them alone.
Amidst an opinion piece about Teddy Roosevelt doing something unrelated, the Hon Raynor Asher, QC, attempts to convince us that Facebook preferring not to pay Rupert Murdoch for the privilege of promoting his products is somehow a very bad thing.
This is the same Murdoch of AT&T-Time Warner antitrust infamy, not to mention the Fox News Network. That, and that Facebook should also pay to help Australians (and the wider world) find up-to-date information about things as varied as Covid-19, crime, and even the weather.
In his own words, "The widespread dissemination of news and opinion is essential for open government. It puts misinformation in balance, and exposes corruption and bad practice." For a moment it seemed he might conclude that platforms such as Facebook – which vastly amplify the dissemination of news and opinion – are also a public good. In an alternative universe, we might even be paying Facebook for the value provided.
Instead, Asher maintains that not only is Facebook obliged to continue sharing news content, it ought to pay established media companies. While they're at it, they'd be expected to provide advanced warning of any changes to the algorithms that influence which content is seen by users – a recipe for disaster that would inevitably mean media companies started gaming the system.
All of this is set against the backdrop that, in reality, the news and opinion produced by such companies is consumed much more widely because of platforms such as Facebook, not in spite of it.
Asher then goes on to ask the wrong question: "If there was no mainstream news read by
much of our population, where would they find sound information about affairs of the day?" In doing so, he inadvertently reinforces just how essential platforms such as Facebook are in helping people gain rapid access to the news that matters to them.
A better question might be: if there was no mainstream news on Facebook, where would people find sound information about the affairs of the day? The answer is almost anywhere else. Want to know about the weather? Check your phone or go directly to the weather website. Want to know about new Covid-19 protocols? Go to the government website, or a news site directly. Go to a different platform. Subscribe to a newsletter. Buy the newspaper.
The fact that this very simple answer is apparently unthinkable gives an indication of just how easy it has become for citizens to get the news they want, thanks to the big platforms.
As it stands, the Australian Government was demonstrably unconcerned that Australians might lose access to some of these platforms completely, let alone just news content. They knew that the legislation might cause one or more of the platforms to cease service to Australia, because that is what the platforms told them.
In the Government's own words, "it would appear that other digital platforms would be eager to step into a space that was vacated".
Ironically, given Asher's comparison to Teddy Roosevelt, the Australian government was so confident that alternative market competitors existed, it was prepared to cause the dominant platforms to leave the Australian market entirely.
Now that one has tried, we are supposed to believe that democracy will crumble.
Most importantly in this saga is to note that the Australian government acknowledged the fact that its own legislation might be unlawful.
First, it acknowledged it might be overturned by the Australian High Court. Second, it might breach several of Australia's international trade obligations.
Now that an agreement has been reached moderating the incredibly broad scope of the original legislation, and - given the way that Facebook has moderated its approach - the lawfulness of the Australian government's policy approach may never be tested.
No doubt, matters such as the Media Council Guidelines and the Broadcasting Standards process are essential for improving the quality of news information, but it isn't clear how disincentivising the spread of such information on a platform such as Facebook serves wider democratic goals.
• Curtis Barnes is research director at Brainbox, a research and advisory firm focused on digital technologies and law.