You’ll have to pardon me for still chuckling today. I enjoy a good joke and it’s not often that you’d expect to hear one on the ABC’s sober Q+A program, and communications minister Paul Fletcher is not the first person you’d turn to for a side-splitting one-liner, but he took the biscuit last night.
In the wake of Facebook pulling the plug on Australian news outlets using its platform, plus the collateral damage done to many other small – and often vital – Facebook pages, Fletcher was outrage personified. In his mildest possible manner, he thundered that Facebook was essentially purloining Australian news content, to the detriment of “quality journalism” of the home-grown variety.
I blinked! Was this the voice of the same government that decided to sic the Commonwealth cops on News Corp’s Annike Smethurst and the ABC’s Dan Oakes and Sam Clark for doing what “quality journalism” does? Was this the same government that gave us the secret trial of lawyer Bernard Collaery and Witness K, who exposed possibly criminal wrong-doing at the highest level? Was this the same government that coyly tried to sign us up to the Trans Pacific Partnership, which elevated the demands of private corporations over the laws of sovereign governments? Indeed, it was so!
Yet I believe that anyone, even governments, can have the Damascus Road conversion that sets them on a totally new path. And, god, do we need it in Australia, where the absence of open public debate has crippled the public policy process for years.
But, back to Facebook. It will be interesting to see what “compromise” treasurer Josh Frydenberg can reach with Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg – that is, a compromise that stands up to quality-journalism-standard scrutiny and is not an expedient papering-over of the cracks.
Yet, the portents are not good. Last night, in between the belly laughs, the communications minister tried to point to the compromise reached between Google and several Australian news outlets – but failed to mention that, unlike Facebook, Google has competitors in the same search engine field. And only under intense prodding did he concede that the $100 million or so in compensation that Google would hand over to Australian news organisations was in no way mandated towards the resurrection of “quality journalism” in the outlets concerned. I’d put my money on the bottom line: that is, shareholders’ returns and executive bonuses.
Now, it is generally accepted that what happened in Australia yesterday is the first step in a ground-zero war between global capital and sovereign nations, so most countries outside our own have a serious interest in bringing Facebook to heel. But all we have heard from them so far is a series of “Boo words”, such as those of UK conservative MP Julian Knight that Facebook was behaving like a schoolyard bully.
The reason why Facebook is behaving like a schoolyard bully – by enduring the loss of Australian advertising dollars in the short-term to squeeze the pips of Australian Facebook users in the medium, so as to cement the corporation’s own interests and profits worldwide in the long term – is because it can.
I have written previously that one of the problems that outsiders have in understanding the apparently Byzantine ways of the American political system, is because we (who are more “European” in our outlook) and our cousins in the Western Hemisphere have quite different ideas of what some core concepts in the canon of Western civilisation actually mean.
When we say “freedom” we tend to mean the right of everyone to go about their peaceful, law-abiding affairs, without any rough-house intrusion by authorities in whatever form. Beyond the act of voting, however, Americans tend to place far more emphasis on the freedom for individuals to engage in private and corporate commercial activity without any regulation by authority. Which leads us to Pandora’s box and what can escape from it.
When the Spanish-American War of 1898 drove the last vestiges of colonial Spain out of the Americas, the Caribbean Sea and its environs became a virtual American lake, whereupon the United Fruit Company started throwing its weight around and where resistance to its exploitation was encountered, freely brought in the US marines and muscle to keep the paisanos under the heel. And so the term “banana republic” was born.
And after World War 2, with the US emerging as the only great economy in the world not to be destroyed by warfare, it was open slather, with the 1950s becoming the age of the Ugly American. If you doubt me, watch the film The Godfather: Part II or read Graham Greene’s book The Quiet American for confirmation.
So, Facebook is playing for very high stakes and we should not be conned by Zuckerberg swanning around in T-shirts and joggers and prattling on about a new democratic world order. Equally, the Morrison government has no choice but to hold its nerve if we are to avoid becoming the first banana in an international bunch intended to decorate the table of corporate thuggery. I don’t think even Jenny has a snappy answer to this one.
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