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Australia’s competition chief claims victory after Facebook standoff

By Byron Kaye and Colin Packham

CANBERRA (Reuters) – The architect of Australian media reforms being watched around the world claimed victory on Wednesday, even as critics said concessions to the laws forcing Big Tech to pay for news content have given Facebook and Google a get-out clause.

The Australian government made late changes to the laws after Facebook last week blocked news content in Australia, escalating a dispute over the proposed legislation and catching international attention.

The amended legislation is expected to pass the Senate this week, despite opposition from some minor opposition parties and independent politicians who argue it disadvantages smaller news companies.

Rod Sims, the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), told Reuters the bargaining power imbalance he was tasked with correcting had been addressed.

“The changes the government’s done are things that either don’t matter much or are just to clarify things that, at least in Facebook’s mind, were unclear,” said Sims, who led the drafting of the legislation.

“Whatever they say, they need news. It keeps people on their platform longer – they make more money.”

With Australia’s reforms serving as a model for other nations to adopt, Facebook was also keen to claim a win.

Facebook Vice President of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown stressed the company had retained the ability to decide if news appeared on its platform and could sidestep the forced negotiation for content payment under the original legislation.

In a key amendment to the legislation, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was given the discretion to decide that either Facebook or Google need not be subject to the code, if they make a “significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry.”

The original legislation had required Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google to submit to arbitration if they could not reach a commercial deal with Australian news companies for their content, effectively allowing the government to set a price.

Facebook, which contends news accounts for just 4% of traffic on its site in Australia, said it would restore news on Australian pages in the coming days.

“This isn’t a must-carry regime,” said Sims. “We never said we’re forcing Facebook to keep showing news.”


While the Senate is expected to pass the legislation, with the main opposition Labor Party supporting the ruling Liberal Party, some politicians and media companies have expressed concern about the amendments.

“This changes the bill significantly,” independent senator Rex Patrick, who plans to vote against the amended bill, told Reuters.

“The big players could successfully negotiate with Facebook or Google. The minister then doesn’t designate them, and all the little players miss out.”

Lee O’Connor, owner and editor of regional newspaper The Coonamble Times, agreed the amendments favoured big media groups.

“It’s the vagueness of the language that’s the main concern, and the minister’s discretion is part of that,” O’Connor said.

Frydenberg has said he will give Facebook and Google time to strike deals with Australian media companies before deciding whether to enforce his new powers.


The code was designed by the government and competition regulator to address a power imbalance between the social media giants and publishers when negotiating payment for news content displayed on the tech firms’ sites.

After first threatening to withdraw its search engine from Australia, Google has instead struck a series of deals with several publishers, including a global news deal with News Corp.

Television broadcaster and newspaper publisher Seven West Media on Tuesday said it had signed a letter of intent to reach a content supply deal with Facebook within 60 days.

Rival Nine Entertainment Co also revealed on Wednesday it was in negotiations with Facebook.

“At this stage, we’re still obviously proceeding with negotiations,” Nine chief executive Hugh Marks told analysts at a company briefing on Wednesday. “It is really positive for our business and positive particularly for the publishing business.”

(Reporting by Colin Packham and Byron Kaye; writing by Jonathan Barrett; editing by Jane Wardell)



Facebook ‘refriends’ Australia after changes to media laws

By Byron Kaye and Colin Packham

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Facebook will restore Australian news pages, ending an unprecedented week-long blackout after wringing concessions from the government over a proposed law that will require tech giants to pay traditional media companies for their content.

Both sides claimed victory in the clash, which has drawn global attention as countries including Canada and Britain consider similar steps to rein in the dominant tech platforms and preserve media diversity.

While some analysts said Facebook had defended its lucrative model of collecting ad money for clicks on news it shows, others said the compromise – which includes a deal on how to resolve disputes – could pay off for the media industry, or at least for publishers with reach and political clout.

“Facebook has scored a big win,” said independent British technology analyst Richard Windsor, adding the concessions it made “virtually guarantee that it will be business as usual from here on.”

Australia and the social media group had been locked in a standoff after the government introduced legislation that challenged Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google’s dominance in the news content market.

Facebook blocked Australian users on Feb. 17 from sharing and viewing news content on its popular social media platform, drawing criticism from publishers and the government.

But after talks between Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a concession deal was struck, with Australian news expected to return to the social media site in coming days.

“Facebook has refriended Australia, and Australian news will be restored to the Facebook platform,” Frydenberg told reporters in Canberra.

Frydenberg said Australia had been a “proxy battle for the world” as other jurisdictions engage with tech companies over a range of issues around news and content.

Australia will offer four amendments, which include a change to the proposed mandatory arbitration mechanism used when the tech giants cannot reach a deal with publishers over fair payment for displaying news content.


Facebook said it was satisfied with the revisions, which will need to be implemented in legislation currently before the parliament.

“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 Vice President of Global News Partnerships Campbell Brown said in a statement online.

The company would continue to invest in news globally but also “resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook.”

Analysts said while the concessions marked some progress for tech platforms, the government and the media, there remained many uncertainties about how the law would work.

“Retaining unilateral control over which publishers they do cash deals with as well as control over if and how news appears on Facebook surely looks more attractive to Menlo Park than the alternative,” said Rasmus Nielsen, head of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, referring to Facebook headquarters.

Any deals that Facebook strikes are likely to benefit the bottom line of News Corp and a few other big Australian publishers, added Nielsen, but whether smaller outlets win such deals remains to be seen.

Tama Leaver, professor of internet studies at Australia’s Curtin University, said Facebook’s negotiating tactics had dented its reputation, although it was too early to say how the proposed law would work.

“It’s like a gun that sits in the Treasurer’s desk that hasn’t been used or tested,” said Leaver.


The amendments include an additional two-month mediation period before the government-appointed arbitrator intervenes, giving the parties more time to reach a private deal.

It also inserts a rule that an internet company’s existing media deals be taken into account before the rules take effect, a measure that Frydenberg said would encourage internet companies to strike deals with smaller outlets.

The so-called Media Bargaining Code has been designed by the government and competition regulator to address a power imbalance between the social media giants and publishers when negotiating payment for news content used on the tech firms’ sites.

Media companies have argued that they should be compensated for the links that drive audiences, and advertising dollars, to the internet companies’ platforms.

A spokesman for Australian publisher and broadcaster Nine Entertainment Co Ltd welcomed the government’s compromise, which it said moved “Facebook back into the negotiations with Australian media organisations.”

Major television broadcaster and newspaper publisher Seven West Media Ltd said it had signed a letter of intent to strike a content supply deal with Facebook within 60 days.

A representative of News Corp, which has a major presence in Australia’s news industry and last week announced a global licensing deal with Google, was not immediately available for comment.

Frydenberg said Google had welcomed the changes. A Google spokesman declined to comment.

Google also previously threatened to withdraw its search engine from Australia but later struck a series of deals with publishers.

The government will introduce the amendments to Australia’s parliament on Tuesday, Frydenberg said. The country’s two houses of parliament will need to approve the amended proposal before it becomes law.

(Reporting by Colin Packham and Byron Kaye; additional reporting by Renju Jose, Kate Holton and Douglas Busvine; Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Sam Holmes and Mark Potter)



Australia says no further Facebook, Google amendments as final vote nears

By Colin Packham

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia will not alter legislation that would make Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google pay news outlets for content, a senior lawmaker said on Monday, as Canberra neared a final vote on whether to pass the bill into law.

Australia and the tech giants have been in a stand-off over the legislation widely seen as setting a global precedent.

Other countries including Canada and Britain have already expressed interest in taking some sort of similar action.

Facebook has protested the laws. Last week it blocked all news content and several state government and emergency department accounts, in a jolt to the global news industry, which has already seen its business model upended by the titans of the technological revolution.

Talks between Australia and Facebook over the weekend yielded no breakthrough.

As Australia’s senate began debating the legislation, the country’s most senior lawmaker in the upper house said there would be no further amendments.

“The bill as it stands … meets the right balance,” Simon Birmingham, Australia’s Minister for Finance, told Australian Broadcasting Corp Radio.

The bill in its present form ensures “Australian-generated news content by Australian-generated news organisations can and should be paid for and done so in a fair and legitimate way”.

The laws would give the government the right to appoint an arbitrator to set content licencing fees if private negotiations fail.

While both Google and Facebook have campaigned against the laws, Google last week inked deals with top Australian outlets, including a global deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

“There’s no reason Facebook can’t do and achieve what Google already has,” Birmingham added.

A Facebook representative declined to comment on Monday on the legislation, which passed the lower house last week and has majority support in the Senate.

A final vote after the so-called third reading of the bill is expected on Tuesday.

Lobby group DIGI, which represents Facebook, Google and other online platforms like Twitter Inc, meanwhile said on Monday that its members had agreed to adopt an industry-wide code of practice to reduce the spread of misinformation online.

Under the voluntary code, they commit to identifying and stopping unidentified accounts, or “bots”, disseminating content; informing users of the origins of content; and publishing an annual transparency report, among other measures.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; Editing by Sam Holmes and Hugh Lawson)


Biden’s trade czar nominee Tai to get Feb. 25 Senate confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, will get a confirmation hearing next week, a key step for the new administration to start rebuilding battered trade ties with U.S. allies.

The Senate Finance Committee said in a statement on Thursday it had scheduled a 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT) hearing for Tai on Feb. 25.

Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said Tai had the needed experience to succeed in the role and vowed to advance her nomination as quickly as possible.

“Her record of getting wins for American workers demonstrates she knows how to champion the values that matter to U.S. families,” Wyden said in a statement.

Tai, who has served since 2014 as the Democratic trade lawyer for the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, earned praise from both Democrats and Republicans for her work in negotiating stronger labor provisions as part of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement enacted last year. She previously served at the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office as head of China trade enforcement.

If confirmed as the first woman of color to serve as U.S. trade representative, Tai will play a pivotal role in implementing Biden’s goals of rebuilding ties with U.S. allies, re-energizing manufacturing at home and pushing China to alter its non-market trade and state subsidy policies. A U.S.-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Tai speaks fluent Mandarin.

Biden has not taken any major steps on trade policy since taking office nearly a month ago, and Tai’s confirmation process has lagged behind those of other Cabinet officials.

But the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office last week announced it would not implement a new round of tariffs in a long running Boeing-Airbus aircraft subsidy dispute. The agency said it is looking forward to resolving the dispute with European allies once Tai is confirmed.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and David Lawder; editing by Jonathan Oatis)


Mexico’s president says new agreement to help Pemex lower tax burden

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Thursday that a new agreement will come into force to once again reduce the tax burden on state oil company Pemex.

The loss-making oil giant has received vast financial support from Lopez Obrador’s government, which has made it a priority to clean up Pemex’s finances and turn around the company’s fortunes.

“The (state power utility) CFE and Pemex will continue to be supported with public financing, with the budget, for the two companies. In the case of Pemex, another agreement will come into force, a decree to reduce its tax payments to the finance ministry,” Lopez Obrador said in his daily news conference.

(Reporting by Ana Isabel Martínez; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; editing by Cassandra Garrison)


Fox News asks for Smartmatic lawsuit over election-rigging claims to be dismissed

(Reuters) – Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Media said on Monday it filed a motion to dismiss electronic voting systems maker Smartmatic’s lawsuit that has claimed that the media group accused it of helping rig the U.S. presidential election in favor of Joe Biden.

In a defamation suit filed last week, Smartmatic had alleged that Fox and other defendants invented a story that the election was stolen from Donald Trump and made Smartmatic “the villain in their story”.

Fox said it moved to dismiss the Smartmatic lawsuit because it was “meritless” and it defended its reporting of the U.S. presidential election.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it means that Fox cannot be held liable for fairly reporting and commenting on competing allegations in a hotly contested and actively litigated election,” it said in a statement.

Florida-based Smartmatic did not respond to a request for comment on the Fox motion.

In its suit, Smartmatic sought more than $2.7 billion in compensatory and punitive damages. It also asks for defendants to retract false statements.

Fox said that it cannot be held liable for covering all sides of a “vigorous debate of profound national importance”.

“When a sitting president and his surrogates claim that an election was rigged, the public has a right to know what they are claiming, full stop,” it said.

Smartmatic’s suit named as defendants Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, his former lawyer Sidney Powell, Fox Corp and Fox hosts Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro.

After the election, Trump and some of his supporters spread false claims of election fraud, including that Smartmatic manipulated the results.

Smartmatic in December demanded Fox News retract allegations leveled by its employees and guests, but Fox did not comply and instead aired an interview on the three hosts’ programs with an outside expert who said there was no evidence to support claims made against Smartmatic.

(This story corrects to clarify that claims were against Smartmatic in last paragraph.)

(Reporting by Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Robert Birsel)


Microsoft halts donations through 2022 to lawmakers who opposed Biden certification

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Microsoft Corp said on Friday it will suspend all donations by its political action committee (PAC) through 2022 to all U.S. lawmakers who voted to object to the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president.

The software maker will also suspend contributions through the same period for state officials and organizations who supported objections or suggested the election should be overturned.

Microsoft said it “will promote and join a conversation with other businesses and organizations that want to strengthen democracy. Recent events have raised issues of importance to PACs across the business community.”

Microsoft President Brad Smith told employees on Jan. 21 that over the last four years 20% of its PAC donations “had gone to members who voted against the Electoral College.”

Smith said PACs were important “not because the checks are big, but because of the way the political process works. Politicians in the United States have events, they have weekend retreats. You have to write a check, and then you’re invited, and you participate,” according to a transcript released by the company. “Out of that ongoing effort, a relationship evolves and emerges and solidifies.”

Smith added there are times “I call people who I don’t personally know. And somebody will say, ‘Well, you know, your folks have always shown up for me at my events, and we have a good relationship, let me see what I can do to help you.'”

PACs for dozens of major U.S. companies have halted donations to the 147 House and Senate members who voted against Biden’s certification, including Walmart Inc, Marriott Inc, AT&T Inc,, Amazon.com Inc, Comcast and American Express.

Alphabet Inc’s Google and General Electric Co PACs have also suspended donations through 2022, while Dow Inc said it would extend its suspension to senators voting against certification for up to six years.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Franklin Paul and David Gregorio)


Twitter permanently suspends My Pillow CEO for election misinformation

By Bhargav Acharya

(Reuters) – Twitter Inc has permanently suspended the account of My Pillow chief executive Mike Lindell for repeated violations of the company’s policy on election misinformation, the social media firm said.

Lindell, a devout supporter of former U.S. President Donald Trump, in a phone interview with Reuters on Tuesday pushed back at Twitter’s reasons for the suspension, saying Twitter is “trying to destroy Mike Lindell – my reputation and my integrity.”

Twitter had permanently suspended Trump from its platform earlier this month.

Lindell used his personal Twitter account, which had nearly half a million followers, and the My Pillow company’s account to spread unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in the Nov. 3 election in which Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican Trump.

Lindell was suspended for repeatedly violating the company’s civic integrity policy, Twitter said in a statement late on Monday. It is not clear which of Lindell’s tweets led to the ban.

Lindell’s political commentary and advertisements are a regular fixture on conservative media.

A self-described former cocaine addict and alcoholic who says he found sobriety through Christianity, Lindell helped sponsor a two-week March for Trump bus tour that ended in Washington on Dec. 14 and spoke at five stops.

He said a fortnight ago that he did not help finance subsequent trips to promote the Jan. 6 rally that devolved into riots as supporters of Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol while lawmakers were certifying the election results.

But the Capitol riots that left five people dead, did not change his views on contesting the election.

“I’m never letting the fraud go,” Lindell told Reuters then.

In Tuesday’s phone interview, Lindell offered his own explanation for why Twitter blocked him.

“You’ve got to realize that they didn’t take my Twitter down because I backed Donald Trump,” Lindell said. “They took it down because they don’t want the Dominion (Voting Systems) machine fraud out there.”

The New York Times reported last week that Dominion has threatened to sue Lindell over his unsubstantiated claims of fraud involving its machines.

Lindell also said on Tuesday that Twitter removed his account after he posted a positive description of him written by an employee. “So now an article goes up about who I really am from a real person. And they wipe my Twitter out forever.”

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru. Additional reporting by Helen Coster in New York; Editing by Michael Perry and Grant McCool)


Biden stimulus plan could boost U.S. output by 5% over three years: IMF

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package could boost U.S. economic output by 5% over the next three years, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund said on Tuesday, citing preliminary estimates.

Gita Gopinath told Reuters the measures in the proposed package could add as much as 1.25% to U.S. growth in 2021, when the IMF projects the U.S. economy will expand by 5.1% after a 3.4% contraction in 2020. It predicts growth of 2.5% in 2022.

Gopinath said the IMF had not calculated the impact of the proposed stimulus package on the global economy, and would wait to see what the U.S. Congress approved.

“One of our first estimates on what the impact will be if the $1.9 trillion is passed … is a cumulative 5% increase over three years for the U.S.,” she said in an interview after the release of the IMF’s updated forecasts.

“We are still in an emergency situation in terms of the health crisis,” she said. “There are absolute needs to accelerate a lot of vaccinations, the amount of testing that gets done in the U.S. … and we also believe that there should be targeted support provided to struggling households and businesses.”

Biden, who took office on Jan. 20, has made addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 420,000 Americans, thrown millions out of work and is currently infecting more than 173,000 people per day, a major focus of his agenda.

His plans calls for $1.9 trillion in spending to bolster the economy and help struggling families, on top of the roughly $4 trillion authorized over the past year.


Gopinath urged caution on a central part of Biden’s plan – an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current rate of $7.25, which was set in 2009 – a plan that has also drawn criticism from congressional Republicans and industry.

She said increasing the U.S. federal minimum wage could help reduce poverty and persistent inequality, but the target of $15 per hour was outside the range of increases seen elsewhere, which made its impact difficult to assess.

“There’s an argument to phase this in slowly to see what the effects are going to be … on employment and wages and jobs,” she said, potentially providing fodder to critics of the move.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday he and his fellow Democrats will act alone to approve the stimulus measures if Republicans do not support the measure.

Schumer spoke after top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s former majority leader, agreed to drop his blockade of a deal for a power-sharing agreement in the Senate, where each party controls 50 seats.

The Democrats have control of the chamber because Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote.

Financial markets are betting the package could be smaller than the $1.9 trillion proposed by the Biden administration.

Gopinath, in a separate blog, noted the projected global recovery varied widely across countries, with faster recoveries seen in advanced economies due to their more expansive policy support and quicker access to vaccines.

But she warned that new waves of infections and problems with vaccinations still posed significant risks.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Editing by Louise Heavens and Matthew Lewis)



Google stops donations to U.S. Congress members who voted against election results

(Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google said on Monday it will not make contributions from its political action committee this election cycle to any Congress member who voted against certifying the results of the presidential election.

Earlier this month, following the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol, the tech giant had paused all political contributions to reassess its policies toward political contribution.

“Following that review, the NetPAC board has decided that it will not be making any contributions this cycle to any member of Congress who voted against certification of the election results,” a Google representative said in a statement.

Hundreds of former President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the halls of Congress on Jan. 6 in a bid to overturn his election defeat, battling police in the hallways and delaying the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory for hours.

Following the incident, Republicans in Congress faced blowback from several corporate firms who paused campaign donations and said they were reviewing their policies.

Amazon.com Inc, AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp, Verizon Communications Inc are among the many big companies who have threatened to throttle fundraising resources for Republicans.

AT&T and Comcast, for example, are among the biggest corporate donors in Washington.

(Reporting by Radhika Anilkumar in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur)