Citizens of Australia woke to empty news feeds on their Facebook Inc pages on Thursday after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government overpaying for content.
The move was swiftly criticised by news producers, politicians, and human rights advocates, particularly as it became clear that official health pages, emergency safety warnings, and welfare networks had all been scrubbed from the site along with the news.
“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 wrote on his own Facebook page, using the vernacular for cutting ties with another person on the site.
“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.”
Facebook’s dramatic move represents a split from Alphabet Inc-owned Google after they joined together for years to campaign against the laws. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google has instead sealed pre-emptive deals with several outlets in recent days.
The Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree to a price.
Facebook said in its statement that the law, which is 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 content.
Blank-Empty Pages on Facebook
The changes made by Facebook wiped clean pages operated by news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharing Australian news, three days before the country begins a nationwide vaccination program to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Lisa Davies, editor of daily The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, owned by Nine Entertainment Co Ltd, tweeted: “Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform.”
By mid-afternoon, many government-backed Facebook pages were restored but several charity pages and all media sites remained dark, including those of international outlets like the New York Times, the BBC, News Corp’s Wall Street Journal and Reuters.
A Facebook representative in Australia did not reply to a request for comment on the situation. A later Facebook statement said the ban should not affect government pages but “as the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition”.
Facebook’s own page was down for several hours in Australia before being restored.