SYDNEY -- Australians woke to empty news feeds on their Facebook Inc pages on Thursday after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.
The move was swiftly criticised by news producers and lawmakers, many of whom pointed out that official health and meteorology pages had also been scrubbed during the coronavirus pandemic and at the height of Australia’s summer bushfire season.
“So Facebook can instantly block @abcperth, @6PR, @BOM_au, @BOM_WA, AND @dfes_wa in the middle of the #bushfire season, but they can’t take down murderous gun crime videos? Incredible. Unbelievable. Unacceptable. The arrogance,” Madeleine King, a federal opposition lawmaker, wrote in a tweet referring to impacted emergency services.
The move represents a split between Facebook and search giant Google Inc which had joined to campaign against the law and had both warned they could cancel services in Australia because of looming laws that will force them to pay local publishers for content.
However, Alphabet Inc-owned 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.
Google declined to comment on the Facebook decision on Thursday.
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.
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in a tweet he had a “constructive discussion” with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday and that talks with the company on the new law would continue.
The tweet did not make clear whether he spoke with Zuckerberg before or after Facebook imposed the change.
“(Zuckerberg) raised a few remaining issues with the government’s news media bargaining code and we agreed to continue our conversation to try to find a pathway forward,” Frydenberg added.
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 Co Ltd, tweeted: “Well, that’s a tantrum. Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform.”
The Facebook pages of Nine, News Corp, which together dominate the country’s metro newspaper market, and the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp, which acts as a central information source during natural disasters, were blank.
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.”