On the morning of the 18th of February, Australians woke up to find that their access to global and local news sites on Facebook had been restricted. The issue of Australia wanting to force Facebook to pay their news institutions for putting their news online has been and still is a hot debate. Nonetheless, people in Australia and the rest of the world were disgruntled to notice how ruthlessly access to certain news sites on Facebook had been restricted. PM Scott Morrison said the following: “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Furthermore, the ex-Facebook Australian boss Mr Scheeler made the following statement: “I’ve come around to the view that the scale, size and influence of these platforms, particularly on our minds, our brains, and all the things that we do as citizens, as consumers, are just so powerful that leaving them in the hands of a few, very closely controlled companies like Facebook is the recipe for disaster.”
These events are examples of the deficiencies in cyber strategy and have caused additional distress amongst citizens during a pandemic. I argue that proactive and apt communication is needed between civilians, the state and private technology firms to ensure a safe and effective cyber domain for the news items. A stronger cyber strategy would involve comprehensive policies and legislation with more transparency required of big technology firms.
Cooperation between the state and private companies
Considering theories surrounding the issue of the cyber domain involving how nations can effectively implement a so-called “cyber strategy” and provide a safe cyber realm for their civilians without flouting ethical values of freedom of speech are reflected in these events which demonstrate unresolved issues between governments and private companies. In its cyber strategy document, the U.S. outlines how it strives for cooperation between the state and private companies in order to ensure a safe cyber domain which should be considered more strongly. This also needs to be considered with the trend of people tending to use social media increasingly in order to obtain news information, despite being aware of “fake news”.
A Statista report shows that in 2020, 52% of Australians use social media to get news. Statista comes to the conclusion, that especially Millennials in the U.S use social media for news every day and also younger consumers in Europe adding to the trend, that social media is used more and more as a news source regardless of whether this is trustworthy or not. A BBC interview of Australian people on the street on Thursday also revealed in the following statements: “I feel like Facebook just uses it as an all-round news service. So to be restricted of all that stuff is definitely concerning.” This makes a clearer cyber strategy (in which one perhaps should outline more strongly how to deal with private news firms and technology companies) and a transparency between the government and the civilians all the more crucial. One should even consider providing more educational workshops or screen tips and advice to inform the public about critical issues that are taking place in the cyber realm such as fake news.
The events between Facebook and Australia and the debate on whether Facebook and Google should pay news organisations doesn’t seem to be simmering down. On the contrary, a hashtag trend called #deleteFacebook has been taking place especially amongst Australians. If one puts the hashtag #deleteFacebook in Instagram, 141,310 posts come up (as of 27 February 2021). News sites such as BBC and the Telegraph report about this trending hashtag which is supposed to support the policy and notion that Google or Facebook must pay the news organisations for using the news content. Such a trend and getting civilians involved shows that this matter is no longer merely between the government, the news organisations and the tech companies. One could consider that this is adding to the idea of an ongoing “cyber war”. Significant debate surrounds this term and we have no real definition of what a cyber war is or could look like. Similarly, Thomas Rid stated in his research that he believed that a cyber war will not take place. However, these recent events do lead us to believe that we are in a sort of “cyber conflict” where countries such as Australia are defending their “cyber borders”.
Whilst the issue of Google and Facebook not paying news organisations remains critical, other issues are also involved in this debate and most significantly, these issues include: fake news and fake websites. A paper “Monetisation of Fake News in the Cyber Domain: A Roadmap for Building Domestic and International Cyber Resilience” by Usama Nizamani explores the dangers of fake news websites and how quickly such websites can gain significance in the cyber domain. Here the dangers of Facebook and Google’s reach and impact is analysed. This is especially relevant because these platforms are often used to spread fake news and achieve a certain reach to subsequently have the users come back to their own fake website. Nizamani concludes: “This increase in fake news sites’ traffic enables social media websites to play an indirect role in monetising the content of fake news websites.” This highlights how easy it is to copy existing news sites and lead the public as well as politicians astray. Google and Facebook are a double-edged sword: while they enable greater access to news, they also have led to the growing issue of fake news websites trying to exploit the service. All these issues yet again show that much needs to be addressed to achieve a balance in the cyber domain and develop a comprehensive grand cyber strategy.
Australia does not want to give Facebook and Google the upper hand. In fact, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg had stated: “We want the digital giants paying traditional news media businesses for generating original journalistic content.” In conclusion, one can safely say that the cooperation between states such as Australia and major tech firms are heated and will continue to be if clearer strategies and policies are not put into place. Australia shows force and strength in wanting to defend its “cyber borders” which also shows promise if one wants to define “cyber rules”. The struggle remains and has gone beyond being a state affair. The public is increasingly involved, making it a global and what I would like to call, a “public cyber issue” where one also needs to be wary of what information remains fact or belief. One needs legislative policies and to accept that states need to determine a “cyber border”.
By Maria Makurat
Maria Makurat is a Masters student in International Affairs with a focus on cyber security at KCL. With a Bachelor in Sociology and Political Science from the University Heidelberg Maria is working in media, print and television. She has a strong interest in international relations, strategy and cyber security. She has strong hobbies including writing and designing for Strand Magazine and she makes art which is published on her art page that discusses issues such as women’s rights: @maria.makurat (Instagram).
The featured image (top) is by Soeln Feyissa on Unsplash.
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