(Updates throughout with detail on restoration of some sites,blank NGO pages, comment from food charity, Facebook no comment)
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,politicians and human rights advocates, particularly as itbecame clear that official health pages, emergency safetywarnings and welfare networks had all been scrubbed from thesite along with news.
“Facebook was wrong, Facebook’s actions were unnecessary,they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation herein Australia,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a televised newsconference.
Frydenberg said Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberggave no warning of the news shutdown when the pair spoke overthe weekend about looming laws that will force both Facebook andsearch engine giant Google to pay local publishers for content.
The two men had a subsequent conversation on Thursdaymorning which was “constructive”, Frydenberg said, adding theydiscussed what he called “differing interpretations” about howthe new Media Bargaining Code would work.
Facebook’s drastic move represents a split from AlphabetInc-owned Google after they initially joined togetherto campaign against the laws. Both had threatened to cancelservices in Australia, but Google has instead sealed preemptivedeals with several outlets in recent days.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was the latest toannounce a deal in which it will receive “significant payments”from Google in return for providing content for the searchengine’s News Showcase account.
Google declined to comment on the Facebook decision onThursday.
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.
The changes made by Facebook wiped clean pages operated bynews outlets and removed posts by individual users sharingAustralian news, three days before the country begins anationwide vaccination program to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Lisa Davies, editor of daily The Sydney Morning Heraldnewspaper, owned by Nine Entertainment Co Ltd, tweeted:”Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity formisinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories toabound on its platform.”
The Facebook pages of Nine and 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.
Also affected were several major state government accounts,including those providing advice on the coronavirus pandemic andbushfire threats at the height of the summer season, and scoresof charity and non-governmental organisation accounts.
“This is UNACCEPTABLE,” tweeted Brianna Casey, chiefexecutive of hunger relief charity Foodbank.
“Demand for food relief has never been higher than duringthis pandemic, and one of our primary comms tools to helpconnect people with #foodrelief info & advice is nowunavailable. Hours matter when you have nothing to eat. SORTTHIS OUT!”
SOME PAGES RESTORED
By mid-afternoon, many government-backed Facebook pages wererestored but several charity pages and all media sites remaineddark, including those of international outlets like the New YorkTimes, the BBC and News Corp’s Wall Street Journal.
A Facebook representative in Australia did not immediatelyreply to a request for comment on the situation. FacebookAustralia’s own page was down for a period of time before beingrestored.
“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.”
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Facebook hadsent the message to Australians that “you will not find contenton our platform which comes from an organisation which employsprofessional journalists, which has editorial policies, whichhas fact-checking processes”.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said Facebook pages of numerouscommunity health projects had been shuttered and “the fact thatthe kids cancer project could be affected, is, frankly adisgrace”.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; editing by Jane Wardell)