Facebook’s move to block news sparks backlash

Australian PM slams 'arrogant' platform; Human Rights Watch calls it a 'dangerous turn of events'

SYDNEY : Australians woke to empty Facebook news feeds yesterday, after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprise escalation of a dispute with the government, which could be a test for the future of online publishing worldwide.

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 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 Facebook page.

"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."

A planned 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 a price.

Although Australia is a small market, the law is being closely watched around the world by regulators, and it could be a test case for a bigger global push to force internet giants to share some of their revenue with content providers.

Publishers say platforms such as Google and Facebook have been hoarding the bulk of new revenue as media shift online, even as newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations and websites are forced to shut newsrooms.


Facebook said it had blocked media content in Australia because the draft law did not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content and said its commitment to combat misinformation had not changed.

Facebook's dramatic move represents a split from Alphabet-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 preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.

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 programme to slow the spread of Covid-19.

"I would say again to Facebook, think again. You may be in it for the money, but the rest of us are in it for safety, protection and responsibility," Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

"This is the moment to return to your origins.

"Where you were meant to be, as a company, focused on community, engagement, not on the money."

By mid-afternoon, many government-backed Facebook pages were restored but several charity pages and all media sites remained dark.

"This is an alarming and dangerous turn of events," said Human Rights Watch in a statement.

"Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable." - REUTERS, AFP