Facebook blocks news stories in Australia to protest revenue-sharing law

Henrietta Brewer
February 18, 2021

Facebook has joined Google in blocking news articles from being shared on its news feed in Australia as a form of protest against the country's proposed mandatory code of conduct for tech platforms.

"The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content", Facebook said in a statement.

Facebook also blocked important government pages including the weather bureau, health departments and police agencies, along with charities and community groups.

He said that Facebook's response to Australia's law showed that the company was "trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves".

Reached for comment, Facebook confirmed it has applied an intentionally broad definition of news to restrict - saying it has done so to reflect the lack of clear guidance in the law "as drafted".

Without reliable news from Australian media companies on Australian Facebook pages, the company will have to ramp up checks on dubious material that hasn't been blocked, said Johan Lidberg, an associate professor at Melbourne's Monash University who specializes in media and journalism.

The social media platform's 17 million users in Australia are now unable to share any news, from Australian or worldwide publishers.

Australia's lawmakers are in the final throes of passing the "News Media Bargaining Code", legislation that would order Facebook and Google (but not other Big Tech companies that display local content) to pay publishers for their digital material.

Australian communication minister said it expected Facebook to restore government pages "as soon as possible".

Most of the affected Pages have since been restored after working with the company, and it sounds like any other non-media organization that's been impacted will get back access to their accounts.

Posts on the Facebook pages of the country's media have been deleted, while fears about misinformation have grown because fake news and conspiracy theories can no longer be debunked using Australian sources.

Despite amendments along the way, the Code has been branded by Google and Facebook as "unworkable" in its current form, and saw Google threaten to remove its search services from Australia entirely should it be adopted.

Facebook's rush to censor may even encourage a proportion of its users to remember/discover that there's a whole open Internet outside its walled garden - where they can freely access public information without having to log into Facebook's ad-targeting platform (and be stripped of their privacy) first.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia's Treasurer, tweeted that he had a "constructive discussion" with Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday morning Australia time. Even Facebook's own page was briefly taken down.

However, the Australian government is standing by the law, which passed the lower house of parliament on Wednesday. "Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted". "With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter", stated Facebook. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg took personal responsibility Tuesday for the leak of data on tens of millions of its users, while warning of an "arms race" against Russian disinformation during a high stakes face-to-face with USA lawmakers.

Investment bank JPMorgan estimated that Seven West Media could receive between 39.5 million Australian dollars ($30.6 million) and AU$69.2 million ($53.6 million) a year from its content deal with Google based on an analysis of similar deals in France. Ministers have said the Facebook ban highlighted the "immense market power of these digital social giants".

Facebook has paid publishers in limited circumstances, including to license headlines and for story summaries to be featured on the platform.

"The law would unfairly require unknown payments for simply showing links to news businesses, while giving, to a favored few, special previews of search ranking", he said.

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