The UK culture secretary has said Facebook’s recent decision to ban Australian users from accessing news on its platform was concerning, and said the firm was “putting its bottom line above the public interest”.
Oliver Dowden suggested he was minded to pursue tougher regulation after a meeting on Thursday night with Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister who is now Facebook’s vice-president for communications.
“We must avoid such nuclear options being taken again,” Dowden said in a strongly worded statement on Friday. “Tech titans have become the gatekeepers of online knowledge and the custodians of virtual public squares, and the government won’t shy away from intervening to protect the interests of the public when it needs to.”
He said Facebook’s move strengthened his view that “we do not have properly functioning digital markets”, and he added: “The UK will be at the forefront of global efforts to address this.”
The government was pressing to level the playing field to “enable proper commercial relationships to be formed”, he said, adding that closer work with other countries to secure international agreement would get under way at the next G7 summit in Cornwall in June.
Dowden’s comments marked a significant intervention by the government, days after Clegg admitted that Facebook had “erred on the side of over-enforcement” by instituting a short-lived ban on content designated as news in Australia.
He said “some content was blocked inadvertently”, after information from government, health and emergency services pages was blocked.
But Clegg insisted Facebook had been “forced into this position” after the Australian government refused to back down over plans to require it to negotiate with news publishers for payment for content.
Tensions had been escalating for some time over legislation to force tech giants to negotiate a fair payment with news publishers for using their content.
A Facebook spokesperson described the call between Dowden and Clegg as “constructive”, claiming the Australian government’s original proposals were “unworkable and ignored the value publishers get from posting their content on Facebook”.
The spokesperson added Clegg agreed with Dowden’s preference for “companies to enter freely into proper commercial relationships with each other” and that in the UK, the social media firm is “paying tens of millions of pounds to national and local outlets to be part of our dedicated tab for news”.
The Australian government said an 11th-hour deal was reached between Facebook and the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the platform agreed to restore news to around 18 million users days before the bill passed through parliament.
It led to questions about whether stronger regulation was needed in the UK, with the head of the News Media Association, Henry Faure Walker, saying Facebook had acted like a “schoolyard bully”.
Faure Walker said last week: “We need jurisdictions across the globe, including the UK, to coordinate to deliver robust regulation to create a truly level playing between the tech giants and news publishers.”