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Facebook, Australia reach deal to restore news pages after shutdown

Facebook agreed to restore news pages on its site in Australia after it said late Monday that it had reached a favorable deal with the government there.

The deal, which came after 11th-hour negotiations and intense backlash against the company, would enable Facebook to run news without having to go through a government-run arbitration process, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, said in a statement.

Facebook would still have to pay publishers for news, but under proposed new amendments, a forced arbitration would be a last resort.

The Australian government and Facebook said in separate statements that the social media company would restore news in Australia in coming days.

“After further discussions with the Australian government, we have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers,” Brown said. “Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.”

Facebook’s abrupt move to cut off news pages for the country’s 17 million users followed months of negotiations between the Australian government and news industry titan Rupert Murdoch, whose company dominates the newspaper industry there.

The News Media Bargaining Code would have required Facebook, along with other online sites, to pay publishers for their content. Rates were subject to a government arbitration process.

The amendments to the proposed legislation include inserting a two-month mediation period into the law that would give publishers and tech platforms more time to broker agreements before they are forced to enter a binding government-run arbitration, according to a government news release.

The conflict in Australia is seen as a test case for new forms of regulation on the social media industry and was closely watched around the world.

Facebook fought the law, arguing that its service already provided publishers with immense value in the form of revenue and clicks to their sites. At certain points, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg even contacted senior Australian politicians and Robert Thomson, chief executive of Murdoch’s News Corp.

Google took a more conciliatory route, cutting deals with the country’s biggest publishers to pay them for news but to avoid the most stringent aspects of the law.

Facebook’s move to suspend news pages last week — which originally swept up some Facebook pages of charities and health organizations, too — provoked backlash worldwide, with politicians in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada calling Facebook a bully and decrying its power.

Company executives, including Zuckerberg himself, negotiated over the weekend to come to a resolution. On Monday, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy canceled a long-planned meeting because of what he described as an “incredibly timely policy emergency” in Australia, according to correspondence viewed by The Washington Post.

Another amendment to the legislation announced by the government would stipulate that it consider any commercial deals already struck between the news organizations and social platforms, a nod to Facebook’s existing pilot program to pay publishers for news.

The government said in its statement that “the amendments will strengthen the hand of regional and small publishers in obtaining appropriate remuneration for the use of their content by the digital platforms.”

It added that the amendments will push parties to negotiate outside the law, “a central feature of the framework that the Government is putting in place to foster more sustainable public interest journalism in Australia.”

Facebook has since restarted commercial negotiations with the major news publishers in the country, including Murdoch’s News Corp, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Tuesday.

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