Does Facebook still only care about Facebook?
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Does Facebook still only care about Facebook?

With Sky News granting airtime to a Nazi sympathiser, and Twitter stubbornly refusing to deal with a far-right conspiracy theorist, Facebook was for once not the bad (or at least not the worst) guy in media last week.

But whether Mark Zuckerberg's social media behemoth manages to get through this week unscathed is less clear.

Facebook could be in for a rough week.

Facebook could be in for a rough week.

Photo: AP Photo/Noah Berger

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's inquiry into digital platforms will ramp up a notch with two separate forums about the impact of services like Facebook on the industry - one for journalists, and one for media executives and stakeholders - taking place in Sydney.

Mistrust of Facebook among publishers remains high.

Its stranglehold over time spent on mobile devices, and its tendency to thrust unappealing products onto news organisations, and to make changes to its algorithms with little notice, are still sources of great frustration. (Not to mention its failure to prevent the spread of fake news or data harvesting on its platform).

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So last week, Facebook sent Campbell Brown, its global head of news partnerships and a former CNN and NBC journalist to Australia in its latest attempt to defuse these tensions. Whether it worked or not depends on who you listen to.

Brown held a private roundtable in Sydney with audience development managers and other media executives. The broad message, according to people present, and others in the industry talking about it, was blunt and clear: Facebook doesn't really care about publishers, but I do.

Facebook's head of news partnerships Campbell Brown.

Facebook's head of news partnerships Campbell Brown.

Photo: Simon Schluter

In other words, and as we already know, Facebook's primary focus is on content shared by friends and families - not by news organisations. If Facebook isn't working out for you as a publication, maybe you shouldn't be on there. No one's forcing you to be.

"We are not going to un-invent the internet." Brown told me in a later interview. "I want publishers to suceeed...but if they are not making money on Facebook, then they should not be on Facebook. "

The message was taken in good faith by those who grasped its nuances - and those who understand that anyone still building a publishing business around Facebook in 2018 is playing with fire.

But it raised eyebrows elsewhere in the industry. Regardless, the rhetoric shouldn't be terribly surprising to anyone who has followed the Facebook story over the past couple of years (As I wrote in January, Facebook only cares about Facebook).

It also seems to be a direct challenge to arguments that Facebook should be paying publishers carriage fees for running their stories (content these publishers voluntarily post to the platform).

Despite this, Brown did pledge to work more closely with publishers on product initatives, particuarly on subscriptions, which was taken by some to be encouraging. The aim is to avoid a repeat of earlier offerings such as Instant Articles, or various experiments in video, which from the perspective of many publishers, never really worked.

A later meeting in Melbourne with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was said to have gone smoothly.

Rod Sims, the ACCC chairman, is a big fan of Hawthorn in the Australian Football League, who happen to have a star former player who also goes by the name of Campbell Brown. This provided a source of banter to break the ice.  (The two Browns are actually aware of each other, having connected on Facebook and Instagram, as you do).

"It was a private chat," Sims said last week when contacted by this column and asked about the catch-up.

Sims was coy when asked how the digital platform inquiry was going, and whether he was at all concerned about coming up with recommendations that satisfy everyone, and don't make the regulator look soft.

"It's going fine. It's fair to say we are getting very good interaction," he said. "Everyobody is taking a good interest in it and we are getting good information. Everybody is taking it seriously."

"We have basically got September, October, November to stop drinking from the fire hydrant and turning our attention to what we need to," Sims said, in typically Sims-ian fashion.

"I don't know where I am going, but know I will get there".

Morrow's replacement

In other internet related news, the NBN board and its shareholder, the Federal government, could announce a replacement to outgoing chief executive Bill Morrow as soon as this week.

The strong mail is that the position is Stephen Rue's to lose. Rue is NBNs chief financial officer, and held that same position at News Corp for about a decade.

JB Rousselot, NBNs head of strategy, is also said to have been considered. But as a close personal friend of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he would be a risky choice for the politically charged position.

Chief customer officer Paul Tyler and head engineer Peter Ryan are also said to be among the contenders for the job.

John McDuling writes about business, technology and the economy. Previously he was a reporter for Quartz in New York, covered telecommunications and markets for the Financial Review, and worked in the finance industry.

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