View from Washington: Facebook facepalm Pt. 94

The social-media company's decision to take on the Australian government not only highlights the power it has but also again questions the competence of those who wield it.

Something being overlooked about Facebook’s ongoing confrontation over news content with the Australian government is that it once more exposes how badly the company is run.

Because, if you think this dispute through, it is hard not to have some sympathy towards Facebook’s position on the proposed legislation going to a vote in Canberra next week.

As a mechanism for supporting news organisations that have seen advertising revenues slump for well over a decade, Australia’s click tax has major flaws – not the least of these being a format that tends to favour larger media companies (and particularly here those owned by the Murdoch family).

The current wave of outrage rises more from how Facebook has managed and executed its response.

The company first threatened to cut all news links to 18 million Australian subscribers in an official blog post by its local MD, Will Easton, at the end of last August. That’s more than five months ago.

Yet as Facebook flipped the kill switch, it shutdown not just traditional media but also government departments, emergency services, human rights NGOs, local support networks and even weather forecasts. And the company has managed to wreak such collateral damage during a global pandemic (with Australia’s vaccination programme ramping up as I write) and the local wildfire season. It is also an election year.

Facebook is trying to roll its egregious blunders back but remains typically unapologetic. Speaking on ABC News, its local flack suggested part of the problem was how broadly the government had defined news within the Bill. Apart from a generous assessment of this argument being that it is aggressively amoral, it also ignored the fact that the definition has yet to be enshrined in law. There was no need to go all-in.

With five months to prepare, Facebook could have made its point in a far less damaging way but... well, it feels like we’ve been here before. The company has plenty of previous for promising to pay more attention to how it deals with content – particularly in moderation – and then falling short because of an overreliance on automated scripts, an insufficient allocation of human resources and a wilful clumsiness. Given the Covid-19 emergency, you’d think it might also have occurred to someone that a scalpel would have been a better tool here than Annie Wilkes’ sledgehammer.

Apparently not.

So, when we look at the near universal condemnation Facebook is receiving, it is fair to say that while some is hysterical much is driven by utter and understandable frustration at the company’s recidivism, arrogance and, for all its riches, downright stinginess.

The question is not – and long hasn’t been – solely about the power Facebook has as a company and the clear anti-trust questions that raises but also how that power is being incompetently used and mismanaged. As Spider-Man learns: “With great power comes great responsibility.” But if the person at the top is Venom, it’s probably better to think of how the poison can be drawn.

Certainly, as Facebook’s actions yet again drive calls for tough regulation – this time with even greater force – making some radical changes in the executive suite may now have become not only wise but existential.

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