Australians awoke to empty newsfeeds on their Facebook Inc pages on Thursday after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprising and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over payment for content.
The move was quickly criticized by news producers, politicians and human rights activists, particularly when it became clear that official health pages, emergency warnings, and welfare networks had been removed from the website along with news.
“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today and cut off vital health and rescue information services were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on his own Facebook page, using slang to describe relationships with another person the site interrupt page? ˅.
“These measures will only confirm concerns that more and more countries are expressing the behavior of big tech companies who believe they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”
Facebook’s dramatic move represents a split from Google from Alphabet Inc after years of banding together to fight the law. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google signed preventive deals with multiple outlets in the past few days.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp last announced a deal that would receive “substantial payments” from Google in exchange for providing content to the search engine’s News Showcase account.
Google declined to comment on Facebook’s decision on Thursday.
Australian law would require Facebook and Google to do commercial deals with news outlets whose links direct traffic to their platforms, or go through enforced arbitration to find a price.
Facebook said in its statement that the law, expected to be passed by parliament within a few days, “profoundly misunderstood” the relationship between itself and publishers and was faced with a blatant choice of complying with or banning news content.
The tech giant has said news only makes up 4% of the news displayed on its website, but for Australians, Facebook’s role in messaging is growing. A 2020 study by the University of Canberra found that 21% of Australians use social media as their primary news source, up 3% year over year, while 39% of the population use Facebook to get news. The same study found that 29% of Australian news video content is consumed on Facebook.
The changes made by Facebook deleted clean pages run by news outlets and removed posts from individual users exchanging Australian news three days before the country launches a nationwide vaccination program to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Lisa Davies, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, owned by Nine Entertainment Co Ltd, tweeted, “Facebook has exponentially increased the possibility of misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories abounding on its platform.”
Nine and News Corp’s Facebook pages, which collectively dominate the country’s underground newspaper market, and the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp, which acts as the central source of information during natural disasters, were empty.
Several key state government accounts were also affected, including those providing advice on the coronavirus pandemic and bushfire threats at the height of the summer season, as well as numerous accounts for charities and non-governmental organizations.
“Demand for food aid has never been higher than it was during this pandemic, and one of our primary means of connecting people with information and advice about #foodrelief is now no longer available,” tweeted Brianna Casey, executive director of the Hungerbank- Charity Foodbank.
“Hours are important when you have nothing to eat. TURN THIS OUT!”
A News Corp spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. An ad on News Corp’s main Australian news site, alongside a link to the company’s smartphone app, said, “You don’t need Facebook to get your news.”
SOME PAGES RECOVERED
By the afternoon, many government-sponsored Facebook pages were restored, but several charity and all media sites remained dark, including those from international outlets such as the New York Times, the BBC, News Corp’s Wall Street Journal. and Reuters.
A Facebook representative in Australia did not respond to a request for comment on the situation. A later statement from Facebook stated that the ban should have no impact on government sites, but “since the law does not provide clear guidance on how to define news content, we have given it a broad definition”.
Its own Facebook page was unavailable in Australia for several hours before it was restored.
“This is an alarming and dangerous turnaround,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “It is incomprehensible to block access to important information for an entire country in the middle of the night.”
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)