Outrage as Facebook blocks access to news content in Australia

Listen to this Article Now

Facebook is being heavily criticized across Australia following its sudden decision to block news content there, amid a dispute over whether the social media company should be required to pay for stories.

Australians woke up Thursday to find they were unable to view or share news items on their Facebook feeds, while the pages of local and international news organizations were blank.

Facebook also initially blocked the pages of many government entities and community organizations, including key emergency services, weather forecasters and charities. The company later said this was a mistake and restored these pages, but the errors only intensified the backlash. 

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement.

“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of big tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” Morrison said. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they should run it.” 

Australia and Facebook have been at loggerheads since the government introduced legislation last year that would force tech giants to pay local news outlets for featuring and linking to their stories.  The company threatened in August to block news on its platform in response. 

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he spoke to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg soon after the news ban took effect.

“Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Frydenberg said. 

Health groups were particularly scathing of Thursday’s developments, given that a number of official health accounts temporarily went dark and because of the broader impact of the news ban. 

“The world is battling the Covid-19 crisis, and Australia is days away from beginning the biggest mass vaccination program in our nation’s history,” Australian Medical Association President Dr. Omar Khorshid said.

“Yet, to save itself from having to pay a few million dollars to Australian news organizations for the work their journalists do, Facebook has decided to punish all Australians by removing their access to news on its platform.” 

Khorshid continued: “It is truly ironic that Facebook has allowed health misinformation to be spread via its platform throughout this pandemic, yet today much of this misinformation remains on Facebook while official information sources are blocked … [The decision is] corporate bullying at its worst.”

Peter Lewis, the director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, said he was shocked at the breadth of Facebook pages that were initially caught up in the ban, such as domestic violence services. But he said the longer-term impacts were especially dire.

“We’ve got 30 percent of Australians who say they get all their news and information on Facebook,” he said. “The debate in recent times has been about Facebook’s propensity to amplify dangerous conspiracy theories and misinformation. Now Facebook’s response to that has been to ban facts from their network, which is reckless, arrogant and dangerous.”

Australian media reacts 

Throughout Thursday, Australian media outlets relied on their own websites and other social media platforms to post the day’s news, including developments  on the Facebook issue. Major outlets slammed the tech giant for its decision. 

“Nobody benefits from this decision as Facebook will now be a platform for misinformation to rapidly spread without balance. This action proves again their monopoly position and unreasonable behavior,” a spokesperson for Nine Entertainment, one of the country’s biggest media companies, said.

This was echoed by SBS, a national media organization that produces news in dozens of languages.

“SBS is extremely disappointed that Facebook will no longer share critical information about Covid-19 and the vaccine rollout that SBS delivers in English and over 60 other languages. For many, Facebook is their primary source of information and removing trusted news sources like SBS puts people at greater risk of consuming misinformation,” it said in a statement.

The code and Big Tech’s anger

Called “world-first” legislation, the government’s proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code would force tech giants into commercial agreements with Australian news organizations for featuring their content. An independent arbiter would step in if a deal cannot be reached. It is intended to “address the bargaining power imbalances with digital platforms and media companies.”

If passed, the code will initially only apply to Google Search and the Facebook News Feed, with other digital platform services added if deemed necessary. Last month, Google threatened to pull its search engine from the country if the law passed, before inking  multimillion-dollar deals with local news organizations through its News Showcase product.

Facebook has strongly criticized the proposed law and continued to do so after its news ban  Thursday.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter,” Facebook Australia and New Zealand Managing Director Will Easton said in a statement.

“Over the last three years we’ve worked with the Australian Government to find a solution that recognizes the realities of how our services work. We’ve long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organizations. Unfortunately, this legislation does not do that. Instead, it seeks to penalize Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.”

The law is expected to pass Australia’s upper house next week, with Frydenberg stressing  Thursday that “our No. 1 one commitment is to legislate this code.”

Regardless of the next steps, Lewis said Australia now needs to reassess its relationship with Facebook.

“There’s the old analogy of a public square. [But] we’re now in a privately controlled square,” he said.

“We need to have a proper public discussion about the sort of digital infrastructure to guide our society. The idea that we’d put all our eggs with a private company that exists to make money off your data and your attention, it doesn’t seem to be the best way,” he said