(Adds Human Rights Watch, Google comment, more detail, inparagraphs 4-5, 10 and 15)
By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY, Feb 18 (Reuters) – Australians woke to empty newsfeeds on their Facebook Inc pages on Thursday after thesocial media giant blocked all media content in a surprise anddramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over payingfor content.
The move was swiftly criticised by news producers andlawmakers, many of whom pointed out that official health andmeteorology pages had also been scrubbed during the coronaviruspandemic and at the height of Australia’s summer bushfireseason.
“So Facebook can instantly block @abcperth, @6PR, @BOM_au,@BOM_WA, AND @dfes_wa in the middle of the #bushfire season, butthey can’t take down murderous gun crime videos? Incredible.Unbelievable. Unacceptable. The arrogance,” Madeleine King, afederal opposition lawmaker, wrote in a tweet referring toimpacted emergency services.
The move represents a split between Facebook and searchgiant Google Inc which had joined to campaign against the lawand had both warned they could cancel services in Australiabecause of looming laws that will force them to pay localpublishers for content.
However, Alphabet Inc-owned Google has insteadsealed preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was the latest to announce adeal in which it will receive “significant payments” from Googlein return for providing content for the search engine’s NewsShowcase account. Google declined to comment on the Facebookdecision on Thursday.
The Australian law would require Facebook and Google toreach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drivetraffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forcedarbitration to agree a price.
Facebook said in its statement that the law, which isexpected to be passed by parliament within days, “fundamentallymisunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishersand it faced a stark choice of attempting to comply or banningnews content.
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in a tweet he hada “constructive discussion” with Facebook Chief Executive MarkZuckerberg on Thursday and that talks with the company on thenew law would continue. The tweet did not make clear whether hespoke with Zuckerberg before or after Facebook imposed thechange.
“(Zuckerberg) raised a few remaining issues with thegovernment’s news media bargaining code and we agreed tocontinue our conversation to try to find a pathway forward,”Frydenberg added.
The changes made by Facebook both wiped clean pages operatedby news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharingAustralian news.
Lisa Davies, editor of daily The Sydney Morning Heraldnewspaper, owned by Nine Entertainment Co Ltd, tweeted:”Well, that’s a tantrum. Facebook has exponentially increasedthe opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism andconspiracy theories to abound on its platform.”
The Facebook pages of Nine, News Corp, which togetherdominate the country’s metro newspaper market, and thegovernment-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp, which acts as acentral information source during natural disasters, were blank.
The pages of the Queensland and South Australia state healthdepartments, where a quarter of the country’s 25 millionpopulation are directed for reliable information about COVID-19,were similarly stripped of content.
The Bureau of Meteorology, a government source for adviceabout bushfire danger, flooding and other natural disasters, wasalso erased.
“This is an alarming and dangerous turn of events,” saidHuman Rights Watch in a statement. “Cutting off access to vitalinformation to an entire country in the dead of the night isunconscionable.”(Reporting by Byron Kaye; editing by Jane Wardell)