Facebook initiated the block in response to the proposed News Media Bargaining Code, currently being discussed in Parliament, which would require tech giants to pay for Australian news shared on platforms such as Facebook and Google. From February 18, Australian users attempting to post links from news sites on the platform encountered an error window, while all news content was removed from the Facebook pages of Australian news outlets, including the national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), public broadcaster the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and commercial media including 9 Entertainment Co, 7 West Media and Guardian Australia.
But as well as the arbitrary blocking of news sites, many vital Australian ‘non-news’ organisations were also affected. This included government and public health pages, trade unions and domestic violence hotline sites.
The Australian government agency responsible for providing weather updates to the nation, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), was prevented from posting to its page, while public health departments in South Australia and Queensland were blocked. Emergency services, including Fire and Rescue NSW and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) in Western Australia were also impacted ahead of forecasted catastrophic fire conditions in the state. Facebook reinstated several of the impacted pages at around midday Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST). Trade unions and support services including the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and national domestic violence and sexual assault hotlines were also blocked in the Facebook move.
In a statement the union for Australia’s journalists, the MEAA, said the overnight decision was the “desperate act of a company with too much power that thinks it is beyond the reach of any government”. MEAA said Facebook’s action strongly reinforced the need for regulation of global digital platforms.
MEAA said Facebook’s move would have severe implications on rural and independent media in the country and leave the door open for misinformation and disinformation across the platform when Australians most needed quality news and factual reporting.
The ban comes just three days before Australia’s national Covid-19 vaccine roll-out, which is due to begin on February 21. “I am deeply and profoundly concerned that Facebook would block access to health, COVID or vaccine related vital public information. This must be addressed immediately,” said Australia’s health minister, Greg Hunt.
In a statement, Facebook’s Australian and New Zealand managing director, Will Easton, said the proposed law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content”. He said: “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.”
In January, United States trade representatives asked Australia’s government to “suspend” its plans, saying it “disadvantaged” the two US based firms, Google and Facebook, which together consume approximately 85% of the world’s online advertising revenue. Corporate filings show that Australian media groups pay a tax rate up to 100 times greater than Facebook and Google on their local earnings with an estimated $6 billion in Australian-sourced earnings not taxed in the country.
A day ahead of the Facebook move, on February 17, MEAA released a statement advocating for the News Media Bargaining Code laws, after it was reported content deals had been struck between some major media outlets and Google. MEAA highlights the need for legislation to ensure compensation is given to ‘all media operators’, not just major outlets. While it welcomed the developments of deals between Google and both Nine Entertainment Co and Seven West Media, it reminded the government of its responsibility to support the sustainability of a diversity of media in the country, including community and regional news and emerging digital news sites.
MEAA Media Federal President Marcus Strom said: “This move by Facebook, which has refused to negotiate as recommended by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, will only lead to its audience being denied reliable, factual news and will inflict massive reputational damage for its brand . . . Unlike Google, which has sensibly begun negotiating content agreements with publishers and broadcasters, Facebook has abused its dominant position and is holding Australian news agencies, advertisers and consumers to ransom with this cowardly response.”
The IFJ calls on Facebook to return to the negotiating table to seek a better, more responsible outcome for Australians and their media providers.
The IFJ said, “Digital platforms like Facebook have a responsibility to support and protect freedom of expression and the media as a fundamental pillar of democracy. It is incredibly concerning for a platform like Facebook to remove reliable, accurate news sources, especially in the midst of a global pandemic where access to public information is vital.”
“The IFJ calls on Facebook consider the implications of the drastic move, not only on the audience it claims to service, but also on the public’s right to accurate, factual information during a global pandemic.