Facebook’s decision to block the sharing of news in Australia prevented the public from accessing critical information on government health and emergency service sites on Thursday, provoking a backlash from ministers and users.
The Facebook pages of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, Queensland Department of Health and Hobart Women’s Shelter were among dozens hit by a ban after Canberra tried to force the social media company and Google to pay news publishers for content.
The unprecedented restrictions highlight how Australia has become the theatre for a years-long battle between Big Tech and media companies, which is testing the value of news to Google and Facebook and the power of regulation in the online economy.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said Facebook’s actions were “as arrogant as they were disappointing”, adding that he was in contact with other national leaders over the issue.
“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” Mr Morrison wrote in a Facebook post.
Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, said Facebook gave no warning of its intentions and added that the actions were wrong, unnecessary and heavy-handed. “But what today’s events do confirm for all Australians is the immense market power of these media digital giants,” he said.
Frydenberg held talks with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive, on Thursday and at the weekend.
Facebook’s ban was imposed hours after a separate decision by Google to strike a global deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, defusing a long-running dispute between the media group and the search company.
The different approaches of tech groups mark a watershed moment for the media industry. Australian MPs this week began debating the proposed law, which could reset the terms of trade between publishers and the tech companies worldwide. Canada, the EU and the UK have said they were considering similar measures.
Health experts criticised Facebook’s decision for preventing access to vital information during the Covid-19 pandemic, while government MPs accused the company of corporate “bullying”.
“The timing could not be worse,” said Julie Leask, professor at the school of nursing at 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 organisations and some government and public health organisation pages.”
Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said her organisation had been mistakenly blocked by the platform. “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 said it would “restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content”. The decision includes blocking all Australian news outlets from posting on the site globally.
The tech company said it had made the decision “with a heavy heart”, but that the new law would “penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for”.
Facebook said government pages should not be affected by the ban and 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 controversy marks an ominous start for what will be a big test of Facebook's ability to filter content from specific users or organisations at a time when its moderation processes are already under scrutiny and it is under pressure from antitrust regulators worldwide.
The decision has also sparked fears of a rise in disinformation on the platform in Australia.
“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 organisations with a fact-checking capability with paid journalists, with editorial policies and so on,” said Paul Fletcher, Australia’s communications minister.
Nine, one of Australia’s largest media groups that has urged the government to ignore the tech companies’ pressure, said Facebook’s action was proof of its monopoly position and unreasonable behaviour.
“Nobody benefits from this decision as Facebook will now be a platform for misinformation to rapidly spread without balance,” said the company.
The Financial Times has reached licensing agreements for news with both Google and Facebook.