But the question the tech giants will be asking, and the rest of us should ponder is : how exactly would News Corp’s ‘ARB’ work?
As more and more things in life become powered by algorithms (which are really just lines and lines and lines of code) ensuring they aren’t harmful could become be one of the biggest policy challenges of our time.
Yet regulating news and information is always a minefield, and governments mustÂ tread carefully or risk making the problems Facebook has created even worse.
For what its worth, Australia’s competition tsar Rod Sims wouldn’t rule out News Corp’s proposal when I contacted him last week. “It’s something we will look at,” he said. ” We are taking on board and assessingÂ all ideas, and at this stage, blessing none.”
In a country like Australia, where we have many politically independent institutionsÂ perhaps an algorithm review body could work, at least in theory.
But in the hyperpartisan US, I have serious doubts. Put it this way: would it be any improvement if the news and information people were exposed to was decided not by Zuckerberg and Facebook, but by the Trump administration?
And if the US started doing this, how would it play out in even more fragile democracies with even weaker institutions?
In any case, Facebook is certain to fiercely resist any proposals like News’ ARB. Among other things, it will argue that regulating its algorithms is unworkable (since everyone’s news feed is different, as are the algorithms underpinning them).
Facebook’s share price has almost completely recovered from the Cambridge Analytica crisis. The company might be feeling confident again, and ready for a fight.
It’s also entirely possible that News Corp’s proposal is an elaborate negotiating tactic. The company has made it very clear it thinks Facebook and Google should pay publishers “carriage fees” for running their stories.Â This would be a similar economic construct to the American cable television industry, where distributors such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable pay programming suppliers such as Murdoch’s Fox and Disney to carry their channels.
Thomson hinted at discussions with Facebook about this issue on last week’s call. “There is no doubt that the company needs trusted publishers to enhance an experience that is being polluted by fake news and ubiquitous ill-informed, sometimes malicious gossip” he said.
News Corp may be betting (or hoping) that Facebook will eventually conclude that paying publishers is an easier way out of its current predicament than subjecting itself to uncertain government regulation.
Or not.Â Unlike Google, (the search giant backed down on its ‘first click free’ policy following pressure from News; it also has an advertising partnership with Fairfax Media, publisher of this column) Facebook is yet to offer many olive branches to the media industry.
The animosity between News Corp and Facebook actually stretches back more than a decade.
According to a Wired Magazine story published last year, in 2007 Facebook suspected News Corp forces were behind fake accounts on its platform that engaged in predatory behaviour on Facebook, which ultimately landed the nascent social network in hot water with regulators. Back then, News Corp owned MySpace, Facebook’s main rival at the time.
Facebook declined to comment on these allegations and News Corp’s global communications team didn’t respond by deadline.
Regardless, we can reasonably conclude that News is playing the long game here, and when it comes to pressuring Facebook, it isn’t going to relent any time soon.
John McDuling writes about business, technology and the economy. Previously he was a reporter for Quartz in New York, covered telecommunications and markets for the Financial Review, and worked in the finance industry.