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Meta puts ‘all options on the table’ should Australia force it to pay for news

Ellen Ransley
The Nightly
Meta says “all options are on the table” should the government force the social media giant to keep paying for Australian journalism.
Meta says “all options are on the table” should the government force the social media giant to keep paying for Australian journalism. Credit: geralt/Pixabay (user geralt)

Meta officials have claimed children aren’t being harmed by social media platforms as it defended itself amid a political push for stricter age limits.

The tech giant — which owns Facebook and Instagram — appeared before the parliamentary committee on social media on Friday, where it defended its decision to pull out of lucrative deals with Australian news companies, confirmedit was considering taking news links off its platforms and denied it was “blackmailing” the parliament.

The lengthy, and at times combative appearance, came as the Liberal Party pushed to crack down on children under the age of 16 using social media, and the government forges ahead with age verification trials.

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But Meta has defended its systems which it claims limits what children under the age of 16 can do on the platform, and attracted the ire of parliamentarians when officials claimed there was no clear evidence likning soaring rates of youth mental ill health and the uptick of social media use.

“I don’t think that social media has done harm to our children,” Meta’s vice president and global head of safety, Antigone Davis, said.

“I think that social media has provided tremendous benefits.”

Ms Davis, who spoke of her lived experience as a teacher and a parent, said that issues of teen mental health were “complex and multifactorial”, but it was Meta’s responsibility to ensure teens “can take advantage of those benefits”.

“We are committed to trying to provide a safe and positive experience and so, for example, if a teen is struggling with an eating disorder and they’re on our platform, we want to try to put in place safeguards to ensure that they have a positive experience and that we aren’t contributing or exacerbating that situation that the teen is dealing with.”

She was lashed by Liberal MP Andrew Wallace, who retorted: “ You cannot be serious” and put to her she was not a credible witness.

“You cannot be taken seriously Ms Davis when you say Meta products aren’t harming young Australians. We welcome Meta’s support for age verification but I’m putting to you that you are not a credible witness,” he said.

He said that dealing with Meta executives was akin to “dealing with Big Tobacco in the 1970s”.

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Meta says social media hasn’t harmed children. Credit: AzamKamolov/Pixabay (user AzamKamolov)

Appearing later, TikTok’s public policy director for Australia, Ella Woods-Joyce pushed back when questioned over any links between youth suicides and the popular video platform.

“We believe we have a very safe and secure environment. We work very hard to ensure people on our platform of any age have a safe experience,” she said.

“We have a range of functions and features, and safety is very much built into the heart of our platform.

Ms Davis wouldn’t accept whether or not there was a direct correlation between the introduction of social media platforms and the “explosion of eating disorders”.

As for whether or not the company would consider limiting access to beauty filters for young people, Ms Davis said Meta had “significant limitations” on their use.

“We don’t allow for filters that have large cosmetic changes to your face and body, for various reasons,” she said.

Meta was also put under the microscope over its decision to not renew deals with Australian publishers, which the country’s biggest news companies have warned will cost hundreds of jobs and risk a rise in fake news.

Meta said, “all options are on the table” should the government force the social media giant to keep paying for Australian journalism, including pulling all news links from the platform.

Earlier this year, Meta announced it would not renew the lucrative deals it signed with Australian publishers in 2021, claiming the Facebook news platform was no longer viable.

Under the news media bargaining code that the parliament passed in 2021, companies can be designated to keep supplying news to consumers.

The country’s biggest news bosses last week united to call on the government to force the social media giant to play ball, but Labor has not yet indicated if it would go down this route.

Meta’s director of public policy in Australia Mia Garlick denied the company was “holding the parliament hostage”, but when asked if the social media giant would recall all news on the platform - like it had done when similar events unfolded in Canada - would not rule it out.

She said that given the government had not yet indicated its plans it was hard to play into hypotheticals, but said “compliance would look somewhat different” if the law was enacted.

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Meta has pulled out of deals with Australian publishers, further limiting news content. Credit: geralt/Pixabay (user geralt)

“We’ve been very clear on the record from… I think July 2020… that the law was based on sort of misunderstanding the economics of news on our platform, and was wholly unworkable from our perspective,” she said.

“We very much respect the Australian Government’s decision to make the laws it thinks are right for Australia, and for commercial enterprises, we need to identify the best way to comply with the law and to manage our commercial exposure under laws like that.”

She said less than three per cent of Facebook users were accessing news on the site – a figure Australia’s three largest news companies disagreed with at the same committee last week – and it was no longer viable for the business.

Ms Garlick confirmed an algorithm change in 2018 de-prioritised news, contributing to the low reach of news content, and that there were other channels where people could get news content.

Meanwhile, TikTok, which now boasts 8.5m Australian users, defended its platform as one for entertainment, not news, and told parliamentarians it may not need to comply should the Government designate companies under the news media bargaining code.

Ms Woods-Joyce told the committee that less than 0.5 per cent of news on the platform came from credible news publishers.

“We’re not the place for news,” she said.

“We’re firmly of the view that we’re not a go-to destination for editorial news, that our users are coming for entertainment and lifestyle and other content areas.”

Earlier this week, Treasury officials — appearing before the same committee — said the department had considered whether Meta could remove all news content from its Australian platform as it had done in Canada, and what the government could do to prevent that.

“We’ve been exploring what might you be able to do to encourage them to continue - encourage or force them to continue - to carry news in those circumstances,” an official said.

“There’s a number of legal as well as policy issues that are associated with that so, as you would expect, we’ve been seeking legal advice on a number of questions.”

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