Social media

Facebook 'unfriends' Australia by blocking access to news

An illustration image shows a phone screen with the "Facebook" logo and Australian newspapers in Canberra, Australia, February 18, 2021.
An illustration image shows a phone screen with the "Facebook" logo and Australian newspapers in Canberra, Australia, February 18, 2021. REUTERS - STRINGER

Australian users of Facebook woke up to a very different feed on Thursday, after the social network blocked them from seeing or posting news over a government plan to force tech giants to pay publishers for their content.

Advertising

Facebook came under a wave of criticism for the sudden news ban, which has affected not only media organisations but also pages for the weather bureau, fire and emergency services and government health services, during a global pandemic.

It sparked widespread uproar, at a time when health misinformation is rife on the platform, and also caused major concerns on the eve of Australia's Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

Marcus Strom, president of the MEAA journalists' union said this was dangerous and irresponsible.

"Facebook is allowing conspiracy theories, QAnon, to promote fake news while they're clamping down on real news, fact-checking and reliable information at a time when Australians need reliable information about the pandemic," he told RFI.

However, Facebook's head of public policy for the Asia-Pacific region, Simon Milner, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the company is reversing the blackouts on pages that were "inadvertently" caught.

"Many of those have already been fully restored...and we're continuing to act on others that have been notified to us," he said.

Unfriending Australia

Australian authorities meanwhile say they were blindsided by the company's "heavy handed" measures, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison slamming the Facebook crackdown as "arrogant".

"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...we will not be intimidated by big tech," he said in a statement posted, ironically, on Facebook. 

Facebook's actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency...

Posted by Scott Morrison (ScoMo) on Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Earlier on Thursday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed that he'd spoken with Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, and that they'd agreed to try to find a "pathway forward".

He added that Australia is standing firm. "The Morrison government remains absolutely committed to legislating and implementing the code."

Facebook's "unfriending" of Australia is in stark contrast to the approach of Google, another internet behemoth that will be impacted by the contentious bargaining code.

Despite Google threatening to shut down its search engine in Australia, since last week, it has cut multi-million dollar deals with some of the country's biggest media companies such as Nine Entertainment, Seven West Media, and the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning