American social media giant Facebook has pulled the plug on its news feed in Australia by blocking all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute, about paying for content, with the country’s government.
News producers, politicians and human rights advocates swiftly criticized the move as they pointed out that official health and meteorology information have also been removed during the coronavirus pandemic and at the height of Australia’s summer bushfire season.
Though Facebook and search engine giant Google had initially joined together to campaign against the laws, the latter has not taken any drastic decisions like the former. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google has instead sealed preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was the latest to announce a deal in which it will receive “significant payments” from Google in return for providing content for the search engine’s News Showcase account.
The Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price.
Facebook said in its statement that the law, which is expected to be passed by parliament within days, “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of attempting to comply or banning news content.
Responses to blank pages
The changes made by Facebook both wiped clean pages operated by news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharing Australian news.
Lisa Davies, editor of daily The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, owned by Nine Entertainment, tweeted “Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform.”
The pages of the Queensland and South Australia state health departments, where a quarter of the country’s 25 million population are directed for reliable information about COVID-19, were similarly stripped of content.
The Bureau of Meteorology, a government source for advice about bushfire danger, flooding and other natural disasters, was also erased. “This is an alarming and dangerous turn of events,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement. “Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”