Saturday, February 20, 2021

Why shouldn’t Facebook block news?

A libertarian view

Facebook warned us in September that they would block news. Today they have followed through on their word and you can no longer read or share the news on Facebook. The ACCC wants to force both Facebook and Google to share a percentage of their profits with traditional news outlets, and so Facebook has responded to these new regulations in dramatic fashion.

The government should never force one company to subsidise another—or in this case force two businesses to subsidise an industry.

No one should be shocked Facebook has banned all new sources, both local and international, on Australian Facebook pages. Traditional media wants to use a kangaroo court arbitration system to make money off of the big kids on the block. Any business would struggle to thrive when, at any moment, the government could force them to hand over large portions of their profits to an industry in decline.

Instead of succumbing to the tall poppy syndrome, news outlets need to revamp their businesses models and make a profit. We all agree journalism provides value to society. Newspapers, radio, and television stations simply need to learn how to monetise that value in today’s world.

This new mandatory code of conduct seeks to correct “bargaining power imbalances.” In reality, this is nothing less than Facebook and Google having a successful business model and out-competing news outlets in the race for advertising dollars.

News sites no longer provide as much value to advertisers as media platforms. More people scroll through Facebook and use Google on a daily basis than read the news. These sites utilise mountains of data that help businesses put their products in front of the specific people most likely to make a purchase.

Newspapers simply don’t have those resources, but there remains a high demand for reliable news.

Facebook helps news outlets just like any other business to broadcast their product to millions. Of Australians, 52 per cent get their news from social media.

The ACCC’s regulations would stop millions from easily accessing news content. Hindering the public’s ability to access journalistic sources, would have problematic and compounding ramifications.

Many Australians wouldn’t seek out reliable news sources, but would instead get information second hand through their friends on Facebook. If Facebook were to take articles and other news sources off their site, Australians would become less knowledgeable about current events, less able to make informed voting decisions, and less engaged in issues affecting this country.

An informed public checks government power.

In Australia, government overregulation makes running a business increasingly expensive and risky. The ACCC’s action on big tech is no exception.

The ACCC’s regulations gave Facebook a choice between eliminating news content on its platform altogether or letting corporate news outlets leach, seemingly unlimited sums, off of their profits. Few businesses, even a big shot like Facebook, could survive writing government-mandated blank checks.

The implementation of these poorly thought-through rules would be messy and complex. Beyond that, we should not accept the premise that the government should have the power to force one company to subsidise another. Once the government sets precedent we cannot know where it will end. The parliament of Australia must vote down the ACCC’s regulations.


"Millions March" rally against vaccine draws hundreds

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Hyde Park and around the country on Saturday to voice COVID-19 conspiracies and demonstrate against the vaccination rollout as part of the Millions March Against Mandatory Covid Vaccination.

There were 11 rallies around Australia, in Sydney, a group called Australians vs The Agenda helped arrange the gathering and their stated “mission” is to help create “mass-scale awakening of Australian citizens — a fully empowered, conscious and cooperative collective of individuals.”

The rally in Sydney was attended by people with signs such as “coronavirus is a scam” and “vaccines kill”. The convergence of many online conspiracies was evident in the signs and views people held against vaccines, 5G, lockdowns, government and Bill Gates.

Former celebrity chef Pete Evans was the star attraction in Sydney, taking to the stage mid-afternoon, without shoes, to speak about his political aspirations with ex-One Nation senator Rod Culleton’s micro party.

Evans excited the crowd with a speech offering self-determination, “no one is coming to save you, except you”.

“I don’t have the answers,” Evans, who was booted from Instagram for spreading falsehoods about COVID-19 this week, told the crowd. “I will speak the truth. Well, it’s my truth. Everybody has their own truth,” he said.

Anti-vaccine campaigners Frankie Winterstein and Taylor Winterstein told mothers they’re “on the front line” against vaccines as people held signs saying “The so-called vaccine is a permanent DNA modification”.

The crowd was a mix of older people and young families with their children who held signs that either rejected science or promoted independent thought such as “Let me learn to think for myself”.

The crowd was peaceful although in Melbourne several arrests were made.


Independent schools defy COVID-19 downturn to record fastest growth

The independent school sector grew twice as fast as the public or Catholic sectors during 2020, scotching predictions parents would withdraw children because of the financial pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Nationally, the independent sector - which is the country’s smallest - grew by 2.6 per cent last year, ahead of government schools’ 1.3 per cent growth and Catholic schools’ 1.2 per cent, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show.

Between 2016 and 2020, the independent sector’s market share grew by 9.5 per cent, ahead of public schools (5.9) and Catholic schools (1.5).

Almost two-thirds of the nation’s schools are government-run schools, 20 per cent are Catholic and 15 per cent are independent, ranging from low-fee suburban schools to high-fee grammar schools.

“There was enrolment growth in independent schools across all fee levels, with the strongest growth in low fee [schools] - below $6000 per annum,” Independent Schools Australia said in a statement.

The ABS classifies schools by religion, rather than funding category, so its Catholic data includes schools run by independent Catholic congregations such as the Loreto Sisters, the Good Samaritans and the Jesuits.

However, the federal Department of Education classifies those schools as independent, as they manage their own funding and, unlike local parish schools, are not run by the education offices of each diocese.

When the congregational Catholic schools are included in the independent category, the sector recorded its fastest-ever growth in NSW last year, adding more students than any other, calculations by the Association of Independent Schools NSW found.

AIS NSW chief executive Geoff Newcombe said 71 per cent of new students were enrolled in schools serving low- and middle-income families. “The median fee paid by parents in NSW independent schools is around $5200 per year,” he said.

Federal government predictions suggest independently-run schools will overtake the Catholic diocesan system as the second-biggest education sector in NSW next year.

Enrolment growth in Catholic system schools has been slowing over the past 10 years. The Mitchell Institute has argued that migration could be a factor, as new arrivals are more likely to attend a government or independent school.

Leaders have also blamed fee rises in some dioceses, as well as the sexual abuse scandals within the church.

Catholic education celebrated its 200th anniversary this week, and head of the Australian Bishops’ Commission for Catholic Education, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, wrote to parishioners acknowledging damage caused by the scandals.

“This damaged many children and families, as well as the credibility of church institutions, including schools, in the eyes of many,” Archbishop Fisher wrote. He said trust was being rebuilt as the failings were corrected.

The chief executive of Catholic Schools NSW, Dallas McInerney, said Catholic schools now taught more students than at any other time in its 200-year history, and 2020 enrolment growth in the sector was the strongest since 2015.

“We’ve successfully bounced back in recent years. We are expecting even higher growth in 2021 with many new and upgraded schools. We have invested $173 million in 2020 in high growth areas across Sydney,” he said.

NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos said the number of students in public schools outstripped the other sectors.

“Despite this, and projections showing a boom in public sector enrolments in the next two decades, public schools no longer receive a cent in capital funding from the Coalition government in Canberra,” he said.


‘Official Socialism’ skulking beneath the cover of Covid

As COVID-19 hit these shores, the country’s medical bureaucrats must have felt like the members of a small and rapidly diminishing cargo cult when they finally glimpsed ships on the horizon.

Propelled onto centre stage, obscure officials suddenly acquired a notoriety rivalling that of ex-royals. With the nation hanging in suspense, their daily reading of the tea leaves received the weight antiquity reserved for the oracle at Delphi, determining whether we could go to work, eat out or travel. And as they lurched between shutting states down and opening them again, most of us, who a year ago could scarcely pronounce “epidemiologist” (much less spell it correctly), quietly accepted their verdict, getting on with life and trusting that governments would do their best.

No doubt, circumstances partly shaped that response. COVID-19 is potentially lethal and relatively contagious; particularly when it first appeared, there were good reasons to fear the threats it posed.

But while it would be wrong to dismiss the public response as irrational, it is clear its extent takes some explaining. Two inter-related trends seem to be at work.

There is, to begin with, a long-term rise in society’s aversion to risk that is apparent not just in social behaviour but in the very words we use. In effect, “security”, as it evolved from the Latin, originally referred not to the absence of risk but to its stoical acceptance as an inescapable aspect of the human condition. In a usage that remained current in most European languages until less than a century ago, to be secure was primarily to be serene: to have the peace of mind needed to face life’s contingencies and ultimate finitude.

Instead, in today’s world, the quest for security involves the demand to eliminate uncertainty, or at least reduce it to the point where the anxieties it causes hardly intrude — and in particular, where death, “the rude touch of the Terrible Surprise” as Philip Roth called it, is cauterised from everyday existence.

At the same time, assuring security became a task not merely for governments but for “experts” — a category that barely existed before the 19th century — and nowhere more so than in health. As enormous strides were made in medicine, health itself was redefined from referring mainly to a subjective condition — the feeling of being well — to an objective state verifiable only through tests carried out by professionals. And with the rise of “public health”, what had been largely an individual concern acquired an ever more pronounced social dimension, embodied in a sprawling network of institutions and regulations. That those trends helped bring improvements earlier ages would have found miraculous is obvious. But it is also obvious that the emphasis on rational, scientific expertise as a basis for legitimate authority had profound implications for social attitudes.

After all, while we submit to power, we defer to authority, where “to defer” means to accord a strong presumption of validity to the statements of those who are regarded as “authorities”. In normal discussion, only the substance of the argument is relevant; in a relation of authority, whether what is said is intrinsically convincing has less bearing than the status of the speaker. Indeed, merely to question the substance of an “authoritative” pronouncement is to claim for oneself the standing that the entire construct of legitimate authority exists to deny.

Kierkegaard, looking back on traditional monarchy, expressed the point succinctly: “Simply asking whether the king is a genius, with the implication that in such a case he is to be obeyed, is already lèse-majesté, for the question casts doubt on his authority.”

And much as Kierkegaard intuited, the transition to contemporary democracy did not ascribe to elected governments — which soon proved fickle, fractious and fragile — the omniscience and omnibenevolence the doctrine of the divine right of kings had attributed to the sovereign; instead, it vested those virtues in science’s official oracles.

Given that transposition, and the desire for complete shelter from life’s perils, the public’s widespread acquiescence in the officials’ dictates should have been unsurprising — the deference reflected shifts long under way. However, that doesn’t make it less troubling, for it is an unfortunate fact that omniscience and omnibenevolence are as sadly lacking among commoners — even when they are highly trained — as they ever were among monarchs. John Stuart Mill’s quip that “some are wise and some are otherwise” applies as surely to public health officials as to anyone else; without effective accountability mechanisms in place, nothing can prevent errors and abuses.

Yet the separation the crisis highlighted between power, which remains the domain of elected governments, and legitimacy, which rests with the expert advisers, dramatically undermines accountability by allowing one to hide behind the other — as has happened repeatedly in all states, but most egregiously in Victoria. And with accountability crippled, deference can readily slide into the passivity that allows authority to morph into its degenerate twin, authoritarianism — an authority that holds itself above being questioned.

That authoritarianism need not be of the brutal Chinese variety. On the contrary, as Tocqueville warned nearly two centuries ago, its more likely form in democracies involves the rise of “an immense, tutelary power”, which by constantly seeming “regular, provident, and caring, keeps [its citizens] irrevocably fixed in childhood, softening their wills rather than breaking them, and thereby reducing the people to a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the loving shepherd”.

Perhaps that is the fate the pandemic foreshadows — the “Official Socialism”, which LT Hobhouse ridiculed in his vastly influential Liberalism (1911) as “a scheme for the organisation of life by the Superior Person”. This was, he said, a regime in which “the aristocracy of intellect which fills the civil service decides for each man how he should work, how he should live, and indeed, whether he has any business to be born”.

Good stuff, in theory, Hobhouse went on to add; but, while the “Superior Person’s way may be much wiser, it is not the ordinary man’s” — and the “ordinary man” is quite fond of making his own mistakes, rather than being told to make someone else’s.

One certainly hopes so; yet authority once gained is not readily relinquished. Moreover, comparing our experience, viewed as a whole, to that elsewhere, many Australians might draw the lesson that it hasn’t been as dreadful as all that. With the desire to be cradled from risk as potent as ever, those ships the Superior Persons were anxiously awaiting may indeed have finally arrived.




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