SYDNEY, BRISBANE (REUTERS, AFP) - Facebook faced a worldwide backlash from publishers and politicians on Thursday (Feb 18) after blocking news feeds in Australia in a surprise escalation of a dispute with the government over a law to require it to share revenue from news.
Facebook wiped out pages from Australian state governments and charities as well as from domestic and international news organisations, three days before the launch of a nationwide Covid-19 vaccination programme. Though the measure was limited to Australia, denunciations came from far afield, with politicians elsewhere describing it as an attempt to put pressure on governments that are considering similar measures around the world.
“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on his own Facebook page.
“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”
The head of the British parliamentary committee overseeing the media industry, Julian Knight, was among politicians abroad who thought the message was aimed far beyond Australia. “This action – this bully boy action – that they’ve undertaken in Australia will I think ignite a desire to go further amongst legislators around the world,” Knight told Reuters.
“I think they’re almost using Australia as a test of strength for global democracies as to whether or not they wish to impose restrictions on the way in which they do business,” he said. “So, we’re all behind Australia in my view.”
Henry Faure Walker, chairman of Britain’s News Media Association industry group, said banning news during a global pandemic was “a classic example of a monopoly power being the schoolyard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves.” The head of Germany’s BDZV news publishers’ association, Dietmar Wolff, said: “It is high time that governments all over the world limit the market power of the gatekeeper platforms.”
The accounts were affected as Facebook moved to block news content in Australia, with the government poised to adopt legislation that would force digital platforms to pay for news content. Fire, health and meteorological services around the country saw problems with their Facebook pages, amid several serious public emergencies.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley confirmed the government's Bureau of Meteorology's page "has been impacted by the sudden Facebook news content restrictions", urging people to visit the website instead.
This happened as the bureau issued a series of flash flooding warnings for parts of Queensland state after heavy rainfall overnight.
The Western Australia fire department's Facebook page was also wiped clean as the state braced for "catastrophic fire danger" conditions.
Western Australian MP Madeleine King described the situation as "Incredible. Unbelievable. Unacceptable" and there were mounting calls for Facebook to quickly fix the situation.
At least three state health departments, which issue regular updates on the coronavirus pandemic to hundreds of thousands of Australians, were also affected.
Several government accounts in the Australian Capital Territory - which incorporates the national capital Canberra - were affected, along with its health department.
"The ACT Government account is verified by Facebook and we have contacted them to rectify the situation," a spokesperson said.
"The ACT Health Facebook page in particular is an important channel for distributing information about the Covid-19 situation."
The national sexual assault and domestic violence service, some charities and even Facebook's own page also appeared blank to users in Australia.
Facebook's response contrasted with Google, which in recent days has brokered deals with media groups - including one announced earlier in the day with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. - in response to the regulatory push.
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Thursday he had agreed with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg "to try to find a pathway forward".
Facebook drew particular condemnation for including in its blackout charity accounts and major state governments, including those providing advice on the COVID-19 pandemic and bushfire threats. Some were later restored, though even Facebook’s own page was briefly taken down.
Facebook said the planned Australian law, expected to be passed by parliament within days, “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of complying or banning news.
The tech giant has said news makes up just 4per cent of what people view on its website. But for Australians, Facebook’s role in news delivery is growing. A 2020 University of Canberra study found 21 per cent of Australians use social media as their primary news source and 39 per cent of the population uses Facebook to receive news.
With professional journalism blacked out, “Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform,” tweeted Lisa Davies, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
The country of 25 million has between 16 and 18 million daily users, according to local media.