In response to Australian government plans to force it to pay for linking to news articles from the country’s news publishers, Facebook blocked all news on its platform. The result was a widespread collapse in web traffic to Australian publishers’ websites.
Facebook and Google have been sparring with the Australian government over the introduction of a law that would make the platforms to pay for linking to news stories. Google negotiated a deal, but initially Facebook chose instead to block news from its network with dramatic results for Australian publishers.
- Just hours after Google announced a deal to pay Australian publishers for pulling content into its news showcase, Facebook refused to pay for news content and blocked all news sharing in the country. Facebook representatives said that ‘with a heavy heart’ it would ‘stop allowing news content on our services in Australia’.
- Since the original announcement, Facebook has renegotiated a deal with the Australian government that puts the platform back in the driving seat: “We have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to,” said Campbell Brown, VP of global news partnerships at Facebook.
- The latest deal may have restored news to Australia’s Facebook users, but for a few days the ban had a major impact on referral traffic to Australian publishers’ websites. In the first 24 hours of the ban audiences declined by 20% or more.
Facebook says last year it generated approximately 5.1 billion referrals. Analysis from NiemanLab shows Facebook’s ban on sharing news stories sent publishers’ traffic tumbling.
- Visits to Australian news sites from within the country fell by about 13% after Facebook began limiting link-sharing. Just before Facebook made the change, over 15% of visits from within Australia were coming from the network. Afterwards, less than 5% of visits were being driven by Facebook.
- Comparing traffic at peak times, at 6 pm on Wednesday, Facebook sent 201,000 pageviews to Australian publishers. Twenty-four hours later, it sent just 14,000. That is a 93% drop.
- The ban also stopped people outside Australia from viewing or sharing Australian news content. This pushed international pageviews from 43,000 to 3,000. The international fall was greater, up to 30%, with research suggesting users in other countries are less likely to go directly to local news sites.
Lessons for publishers
The drop in traffic to publisher websites was not a complete surprise; previous actions by the tech giants Facebook and Google have had similar results.
- NiemanLab reports that, in 2014, Google removed Spanish publishers from its news service and web users’ news consumption dropped 20%. Facebook removed news stories from its news feed in six countries and one Guatemalan news site lost two-thirds of its traffic overnight.
- If the ban had continued, more dedicated news consumers would be likely to go directly to newspaper’s websites or download publisher apps. The ABC TV station’s news app topped the charts in Australia after Facebook’s ban.
- Establishing relationships directly with audiences through apps, paywalls and registration walls and increasingly email newsletters, is the best hedge against the removal of platform referral traffic.
- The 2019 Platforms and Publishers report from the Columbia Journalism Review is an interesting reminder that over reliance on platform traffic can be damaging.
Why it matters
Facebook’s confrontation with the Australian administration is likely to be just the first of many. Governments are looking at the decline of the news industry in their countries and looking to secure funds from Facebook and Google as part of the solution.
Canada is already eyeing similar moves, as is the European Union. “Given the rising expectation of regulation in the EU, and possibly the UK, the battle lines are being drawn,” said Tom Bureau, CEO of Immediate Media, in response to Facebook’s initial actions.