Oliver Dowden expresses alarm over Facebook ban on news in Australia

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Ben Riley-Smith
·3 min read
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Oliver Dowden will attempt to speak to both senior figures at Facebook and his Australian ministerial counterparts this week - PA
Oliver Dowden will attempt to speak to both senior figures at Facebook and his Australian ministerial counterparts this week - PA

The Culture Secretary is said to be alarmed at Facebook's decision to block news content in Australia and is seeking clarity from the social media company's executives.

A source close to Oliver Dowden, who has held the Cabinet post since last February, told The Daily Telegraph of his concern "about developments in Australia". Mr Dowden will attempt to speak to both senior figures at Facebook and his Australian ministerial counterparts this week to understand the dynamics at play.

He recently talked of the need to "even the playing field" between internet giants like Facebook and traditional publishers, amid fears the latter was being undercut online. Last week Facebook blocked Australian users from viewing and sharing news and stopped Australian newspapers from posting links on their Facebook pages.

It was in retaliation for Australian politicians considering a law to force Facebook to pay publishers - such as newspapers - when their content was used on the site.

The row was the latest front in a long-running debate about whether Facebook was a publisher and therefore bound by copyright and libel laws, or simply a platform where users could post. With politicians in Australia and also Canada looking at whether they could make Facebook pay for news content, similar questions were being asked in Britain.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary and former culture secretary, was asked on Times Radio if he supported adopting something similar in the UK.

Mr Hancock hinted at support, saying: "I am a great admirer of Australia and Canada," but added it was a matter for the incumbent Culture Secretary.

A Facebook source noted the UK had a different set-up to those countries, saying it had already put "substantial investment" into UK publishers.

That was done through Facebook News, which launched last month and offered output from hundreds of leading national, local and lifestyle outlets found in the Facebook phone app.

Mr Dowden used a speech last month at Reset 2021, a virtual conference hosted by the Advertising Association, to outline his concerns about the current balance of power online.

He said: "The rise of online advertising has brought huge benefits, particularly for smaller companies. It has made things cheaper, and more direct, enabling advertisers to target their messages straight on to the Facebook page or browsers of the people they most want to reach.

"But it has also brought a number of challenges. There are growing ­concerns about brand safety, about transparency and accountability; around content standards, and harm.

"Most of all, the rise of online advertising has created a fundamental imbalance between publishers, advertisers and the online platforms upon which they increasingly rely.

"It's time to even the playing field."

Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook's vice-president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said last week on LBC radio that the news ban in Australia had not been taken "lightly".

She added: "What I want to be really clear about is that we have a commitment to investing in quality news, and that hasn't changed."