Facebook faces outrage after blocking news content in Australia

Accounts providing information on natural disasters and social assistance wiped clean by media platform

A Nine Entertainment Co. page on Facebook is displayed without posts in Sydney, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. Facebook is vowing to restrict news sharing as Australian lawmakers consider forcing digital giants into payment agreements. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
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Australians woke to empty news feeds on their Facebook pages on Thursday after the social media platform blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.

The move was swiftly criticised by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates, particularly when it became clear that official health pages, emergency safety warnings and welfare networks had all been scrubbed from the site, along with news.

"Facebook was wrong, Facebook's actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a televised news conference.

Mr Frydenberg said Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg gave no warning of the news shutdown when the pair spoke over the weekend about looming laws that will force Facebook and search engine Google to pay local publishers for content.

The two men had a conversation on Thursday morning that was constructive and discussed "differing interpretations" about how the new Media Bargaining Code would work, Mr Frydenberg said.

The Facebook page of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) is seen on a screen in Canberra, Australia, February 18, 2021.   AAP Image/Lukas Coch/via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. AUSTRALIA OUT. NEW ZEALAND OUT.
The Facebook page of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology on February 18, 2021 after the social media giant wiped posts from a range of Australian news sources. AAP Image via Reuters

Facebook's drastic move is a split from Alphabet Inc-owned Google after they initially joined together to campaign against the laws. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google instead sealed pre-emptive deals with several outlets in recent days.

The head of the UK's newspaper trade group, the News Media Association,  Henry Faure Walker said Facebook's ban during a global pandemic was "a classic example of a monopoly power being the school yard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves."

"Facebook's actions in Australia demonstrate precisely why we need jurisdictions across the globe, including the UK, to coordinate to deliver robust regulation to create a truly level playing between the tech giants and news publishers."

The law to require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price, is expected to be passed by the Australian parliament within days,

Facebook said the law "fundamentally misunderstands" the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of complying or banning news content.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp was the latest to announce a deal in which it will receive "significant payments" from Google in return for providing content for the search engine's News Showcase account.

Google declined to comment on the Facebook decision on Thursday.

The Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subject to forced arbitration to agree on a price.

Facebook said in its statement that the law, which is expected to be passed by parliament within days, "fundamentally misunderstands" the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of attempting to comply or banning news content.

The changes made by Facebook wiped clean pages operated by news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharing Australian news, three days before the country begins a nationwide vaccination programme to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Lisa Davies, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, owned by Nine Entertainment, tweeted: "Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform."

The Facebook pages of Nine and News Corp, which together dominate the country's metro newspaper market, and the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp, which acts as a central information source during natural disasters, were blank.

Also affected were several major state government accounts, including those providing advice on the coronavirus pandemic and bushfire threats at the height of the summer season, and scores of charity and non-government organisation accounts.

"This is UNACCEPTABLE," tweeted Brianna Casey, chief executive of hunger relief charity Foodbank.

"Demand for food relief has never been higher than during this pandemic, and one of our primary comms tools to help connect people with #foodrelief info & advice is now unavailable. Hours matter when you have nothing to eat. SORT THIS OUT!"

By mid-afternoon, many government-backed Facebook pages were restored but several charity pages and all media sites were dark, including those of international outlets such as The New York Times, the BBC and News Corp's Wall Street Journal.

A Facebook representative in Australia did not reply to a request for comment on the situation. Facebook Australia's page was down for a period before being restored.

"This is an alarming and dangerous turn of events," said Human Rights Watch. "Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable."

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Facebook had sent the message to Australians that "you will not find content on our platform which comes from an organisation which employs professional journalists, which has editorial policies, which has fact-checking processes".

Health Minister Greg Hunt said Facebook pages of numerous community health projects had been shut and "the fact that the kids cancer project could be affected, is, frankly a disgrace".