Facebook ban on news sharing in Australia provokes backlash

Facebook has blocked all news content on its site in Australia in response to the federal government’s decision to impose a news media code, said treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Facebook’s Australian and New Zealand managing director, Will Easton, said the tech giant has decided not to post links to Australian publishers and no Australian user would be able to share or see content from any news outlets—Australian or international.

In a Facebook post, Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said the social media company’s actions were “as arrogant as they were disappointing.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook said in a blog post published on Thursday morning. “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.”

The ban has led to a severe backlash as it also restricts access to critical information on government health and emergency service sites. The Facebook pages of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, Queensland Department of Health and Hobart Women’s Shelter were among dozens hit by the ban. Preventing access to vital information during the Covid-19 pandemic smacks of bullying, say health experts. “The timing could not be worse,” said Julie Leask, professor at the school of nursing at the University of Sydney.

“Three days before our Covid-19 vaccine rollout, Australians using Facebook as their primary source of news can no longer get access to credible information about vaccination from news organizations and some government and public health organization pages.”

Canberra is set to pass a landmark media law that would make Google and Facebook pay news publishers for displaying their content. The move is backed by the nation’s media companies. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission held an 18-month inquiry which found that the social media platforms were taking unfair advantage of the media companies’ hard-earned business by offering their articles on their sites. This threatened the viability of the news businesses.

The ACCC has proposed a bargaining code to ensure that news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate.

In a Facebook post, Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said the social media company’s actions were “as arrogant as they were disappointing. These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”

Josh Frydenberg said Facebook gave no warning of its intentions to ban all news posts. “But what today’s events do confirm for all Australians is the immense market power of these media digital giants,” he said. Frydenberg earlier held talks with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive, on Thursday and on the weekend.

On the other hand, Google has signed a slew of deals with Australian media houses, including Ruper Murdoch’s New Corp, in a bid to appease the government’s demand for payment.

Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said the platform had mistakenly blocked her organisation. “Australian workers cannot now find out about their rights at work via Facebook. This is disgraceful & needs to be reversed immediately,” she wrote on Twitter.

Facebook has assured that it had no intentions to ban government pages on the social media site, and it would reverse any pages that were closed inadvertently. “As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted,” said the company.

The difference in approach between Google and Facebook to the code imposition is very stark. Facebook is already under pressure worldwide for its inability to filter harmful content on its website. Additionally, it is facing regulation scrutiny for the content and monopolistic tendencies of big tech companies.

“We will be making the point that the position that Facebook has taken means that the information that people see on Facebook does not come from organizations with a fact-checking capability with paid journalists, with editorial policies and so on,” said Paul Fletcher, Australia’s communications minister.

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