Facebook re-enters negotiations after blocking news on site in Australia

Company has ‘tentatively friended us again’ PM says after tech giant’s abrupt decision during week

Facebook Inc is back at the negotiating table, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said on Saturday after the tech giant this week blocked news on its site in the country.

Facebook’s abrupt decision to stop Australians from sharing news on the site and strip the pages of domestic and foreign news outlets also erased several state government and emergency department accounts, causing widespread anger.

The company has "tentatively friended us again," Mr Morrison told a news conference in Sydney. "What I'm pleased about it that Facebook is back at the table again."

Facebook has publicly indicated no change in its opposition to a proposed law requiring social media platforms to pay for links to news content. Mr Morrison was not asked about that.

Australia's treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Friday he had spoken with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and further talks were expected over the weekend. It was not clear whether those talks have happened.

A Facebook spokeswoman and representatives for Mr Frydenberg did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The stand-off comes as Australia's vows to press ahead with the landmark legislation, which could set a global precedent as countries like Canada express interest in taking similar action.

The Australian law, which would force Facebook and Alphabet Inc's Google to reach commercial deals with Australian publishers or face compulsory arbitration, has cleared the lower house of parliament and is expected to be passed by the Senate within the next week.

Simon Milner, Facebook's Asia-Pacific policy director of policy for the Asia-Pacific region, was quoted on Saturday as telling the Sydney Morning Herald the company had three main objections to the legislation.

Facebook objects to being barred from discriminating between different news outlets that ask for money, to arbitration models that allow an independent body to select one payment over another, and to the obligation to enter commercial negotiations with Australian media companies, Mr Milner said.

Facebook declined to make Mr Milner available to speak with Reuters.

Australia’s legislation is being widely watched overseas.

Canadian heritage minister Steven Guilbeault said on Thursday his country would adopt the Australian approach as it crafts its own legislation in coming months.

Google, which has initially threatened to close its search engine in Australia, has announced host of preemptive licensing deals over the past week, including a global agreement with News Corp.

Facebook's move had an immediate impact on traffic to Australian new sites, according to early data from New York-based analytics firm Chartbeat.

Total traffic to the Australian news sites from various platforms fell from the day before the ban by around 13 per cent within the country.

Guardian Google deal

Meanwhile, Guardian Australia is the latest media company to strike a deal with Google to feature its journalism in the News Showcase product just days out from the Senate debating the federal government’s news media code.

The multi-year commercial agreement was finalised after weeks of negotiation between Google and the Guardian’s leadership in Australia, as well as editorial and commercial staff in London.

“We are pleased to have reached this agreement with Google because it will allow us to break more stories, provide more independent Australian journalism and reach more readers,” Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor said.

As part of Google Showcase, Guardian Australia will be able to control when and what Guardian stories are presented to readers in Showcase, and will have more control over how stories are presented in story panels in Google News.

The agreement is one of over 50 Google has made with publishers in Australia, and over 500 in the world as part of News Showcase. In the past two weeks Google has been signing deals with Seven West Media, Nine, News Corp, as well as smaller players including Junkee Media. – Reuters and Guardian