Backlash grows as Facebook imposes Australia news blackout

·4 min read

Facebook was branded "arrogant" and "unconscionable" for banning Australian users from sharing news Thursday, as its defiant response to government regulation inadvertently crippled the pages of several emergency services.

The California firm effectively stripped news from Facebook Down Under -- claiming Australian government proposals it pay for news were unworkable, forcing it to make the move "with a heavy heart".

So Australians woke unable to share news articles or view media's Facebook pages, while Aussie news sources disappeared from the site worldwide.

But a technical hitch meant the Facebook pages of children's charities, a domestic violence hotline and various emergency services were also scrubbed, prompting widespread outcry.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Facebook had made a decision to "unfriend" Australia.

He vowed to press ahead with regulation, while slamming Facebook for "cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services".

The actions, he said, were "as arrogant as they were disappointing".

A Facebook spokesperson said official government pages -- including those alerting the public to Covid-19 outbreaks, bushfires and cyclones -- were not the target and were "inadvertently impacted".

Some non-news sites caught up in the blackout gradually returned throughout the day, but Australians are still grappling with fallout from the decision.

Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson described the move -- which has also impacted Indigenous community pages and even Facebook's own page -- as an "alarming and dangerous turn of events".

"Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable," she said.

Others warned that Facebook was purging official information and news produced by credible journalists from the site, while leaving dangerous misinformation largely unchecked.

Several Facebook pages that regularly promote misinformation and conspiracy theories were unaffected by the ban.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said that was especially dangerous days before the country starts rolling out its coronavirus vaccines.

"I would say again to Facebook... Forget the money, start growing up and making sure that you are about community and safety above all else," he said.

- 'A stark choice' -

It is just the latest clash between governments and big tech firms, whose social, economic and cultural impact is increasingly coming under the microscope.

Morrison said the issue regularly comes up in talks between world leaders.

"An increasing number of countries are expressing (concerns) about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them," he said. "They may be changing the world, but that doesn't mean they run it."

Facebook's move came hours after Australia's Treasurer tweeted that he had a "constructive discussion" with CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the legislation, which is currently being considered in parliament.

Facebook has strongly objected to the rules, saying: "The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content," according to Facebook's manager for Australia and New Zealand, William Easton.

"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's hardball response contrasted with Google, which in recent days has brokered deals with media groups, including one with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

News Corp was the last major private media company to make a deal and was instrumental in pushing the conservative Australian government to tackle the tech giants.

Facebook's Easton said the firm has argued to Australian officials that "the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favor of the publishers," and generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for the media organisations in the country.

"We've long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations," he said.

"Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn't take or ask for."

Australia's competition watchdog, however, has maintained that for every $100 spent on online advertising, Google captures $53, Facebook takes $28 and the rest is shared among others, depriving media outlets of revenue needed to support journalism.

The situation is mirrored in other parts of the world where tech platforms are facing increasing pressure to share revenue with news media.


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