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UPDATE 4-Time to get tough with 'bully' Facebook, UK lawmaker and publishers say

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Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton
·3 min read
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* UK lawmaker says Facebook move could backfire

* Facebook accused of abusing its power

* UK media companies join condemnation(Adds comment by UK foreign minister Raab)

By Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton

LONDON, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Facebook's move to blockall news content in Australia is an attempt to bully a democracyand will stiffen the resolve of legislators across the world toget tough with the big tech companies, a senior British lawmakersaid.

The move by the 17-year-old Facebook shocked Australia andsent shivers through the global news industry, which has alreadyseen its business model upended by the titans of thetechnological revolution.

"This action - this bully boy action - that they'veundertaken in Australia will, I think, ignite a desire to gofurther amongst legislators around the world," Julian Knight,chair of the British Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media andSport Committee, told Reuters.

"We represent people and I'm sorry but you can't runbulldozer over that - and if Facebook thinks it'll do that itwill face the same long-term ire as the likes of big oil andtobacco," said Knight, a member of the ruling Conservativeparty.

The dispute centres on a planned Australian law that wouldrequire Facebook and Alphabet Inc's Google to reachcommercial deals to pay news outlets whose links drive trafficto their platforms, or agree a price through arbitration.

News Corp struck a global news deal with Google,the Rupert Murdoch-controlled media company said onWednesday.

Facebook said it had blocked a wide swathe of pages inAustralia because the draft law did not clearly define newscontent. It said its commitment to combat misinformation had notchanged, and it would restore pages that were taken down bymistake.

Knight's comments echoed those of the head of the UK's newsmedia trade group.

News Media Association chairman Henry Faure Walker said thatFacebook's action during a pandemic was "a classic example of amonopoly power being the schoolyard bully, trying to protect itsdominant position with scant regard for the citizens andcustomers it supposedly serves".

DEFINING BATTLE

Governments across the world have been puzzling for yearswhat to do with the companies that have transformed globalcommunication, amplified misinformation and ripped revenue awayfrom more traditional media producers.

On Thursday, the British government took a more cautiousline than some of Facebook's fiercer critics.

"It is vital people can access accurate news and informationfrom a range of sources, particularly during a global pandemic,"a government spokesman said in a statement. "We encourageFacebook and the Australian government to work together to finda solution."

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, asked about thedispute during a visit to Paris, said: "There's a sensibleconversation that is to be had between government and techcompanies about making sure news is available in the mosteffective, efficient and cost-effective way for consumers."

Knight, who compared the innovation and disruption of thelarge U.S. tech companies to the invention of the printing pressin Europe in the 15th century, said the tussle between them andthe state would be one of the defining battles of the age.

"This (Australia) is a real test case," said Knight, whosaid he favoured using competition rules.

In Britain the government has commissioned reviews intodigital competition and the sustainability of news.

Its biggest media publishers have agreed partnership dealswith Google and Facebook but industry sources said they are alsolobbying the government to do more and will be emboldened by theAustralian government.

Publishers lined up to express surprise that Facebook,headed by founder Mark Zuckerberg, had taken such action.

"So much for Facebook’s commitment to free speech," said aspokesman for MailOnline, one of world's most popular newswebsites. "We are astonished by this inflammatory move."

The Guardian Media Group, a British media company which ownsthe Guardian newspaper, said it was deeply concerned.

"Dominant online platforms are now a key gateway to news andinformation online. We believe that public interest journalismshould be as widely available as possible in order to have ahealthy functioning democracy," a spokesman for the group said.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton; Additionalreporting by Alistair Smout in London and Michel Rose in Paris;Editing by Keith Weir, Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)