In the early hours of Thursday morning, Facebook pulled the big guns out on Australia in response to the continent’s proposed new Media Bargaining Law. The U.S. giant blocked all news in Australia, including non-news organizations including the Bureau of Meteorology, 1800 Respect, Harvey Norman, Queensland Health, and more in the midst of a global health crisis.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has strongly criticized Facebook’s decision to ban Australian news from the social network labeling it as “arrogant” and “disappointing.”
In a post on Facebook, Morrison said Facebook had sought to “unfriend Australia,” and that essential services such as information and health care were also blocked. He said he was in “regular contact” with leaders of other countries, who were interested in the ongoing slugfest between the government and Facebook.
He said Facebook should not think it had the power to run the world, saying the “bullying” would not stop Australia legislating the News Media Bargaining Code.
The bargaining code, which passed through the Australian House of Representatives on Wednesday night, will require tech giants like Google, Facebook and Apple to pay media outlets for using their content. The bill is expected to pass through the Senate and become law by early next week.
Facebook Ban: “Wrong, unnecessary and heavy-handed”
Tech giants Google and Facebook had engaged in protracted negotiations because they say it doesn’t reflect how the internet work, and unfairly “penalizes” their platforms.
Facebook’s announcement to ban Australian users from accessing news stories came the same day Google announced it had reached an agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal, to pay for its journalism that appears in people’s feeds.
The social media giant, however, cut off news-sharing on its platform in Australia rather than bargain with publishers.
“Today we made an incredibly difficult decision to restrict the availability of news on Facebook in Australia,” said Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, in a blog post. “What the proposed law introduced in Australia fails to recognize is the fundamental nature of the relationship between our platform and publishers.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a press conference on that Facebook’s bans on news in Australia had a “huge community impact.” He said he had been given no prior warning of the social media giant’s decision, which it said it was taking to carry through on a threat it made in September after being unable to find a solution in discussions with the Australian government.
“Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary. They were heavy-handed and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Frydenberg said. “We certainly weren’t given any notice by Facebook.”
Of every A$100 ($77) spend on digital advertising in Australian media, A$81 ($63) goes to Google and Facebook.
The Australian government has proposed the news media bargaining code to create a level playing field between tech giants and news publishers.
Facebook wrote in a blog post that the code left it “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.”
“With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter,” it said in a blog post.
“Dangerous turn of events”
Under the current news ban by Facebook, Australian news publishers are also restricted from sharing or posting any links on their Facebook pages. The social media giant’s actions has also denied Australians access to key government agencies, including police and emergency services, health departments and the Bureau of Meteorology.
The ban sparked public outcry, with many Australians indignant about their sudden loss of access to trusted news sources. Many pointed out that the social media giant was one way that people received emergency updates about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and national disaster situations.
Human Rights Watch’ Australia director Elaine Pearson said Facebook’s was censoring the flow of information in the country – calling it a dangerous turn of events.
“Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable,” said Pearson.
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