SYDNEY, Feb. 18 (Reuters) — Facebook faced an angry backlash on Thursday after blocking news feeds in Australia in a surprise escalation of a dispute with the government which could be a test for the future of online publishing worldwide.
The move was denounced by media groups, politicians and human rights groups in Australia and beyond, as it became clear that official health pages and emergency warnings had been scrubbed along with news sites, just three days before the launch of a nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program.
"Facebook's actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing," Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on his own Facebook page.
"These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them."
The dispute centers on a planned Australian law, which would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals to pay news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or agree a price through arbitration.
Although Australia is a small market, the law is being closely watched around the world by regulators, and could be a test case for a bigger global push to force internet giants to share more of their revenue with content providers.
News publishers outside Australia leapt on Facebook's tactics as evidence that the company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, cannot be trusted as the gatekeeper for their industry.
Banning news during a global pandemic was "a classic example of a monopoly power being the schoolyard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves," said Henry Faure Walker, chairman of Britain's News Media Association industry group.
Facebook said it had blocked a wide swathe of pages because the draft law did not provide clearly define news content. It said its commitment to combat misinformation had not changed, and it would restore pages that had been taken down by mistake.
"The actions we're taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content," a company spokesman said. "As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted."
Publishers say platforms such as Google and Facebook have hoarded the vast bulk of revenue as media shift online, even as print and broadcast advertising shrivels, forcing newspapers, magazines and TV and radio stations to shut newsrooms.
The move in Australia represents a split between Facebook and Google, which had joined together for years to campaign against such laws. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google instead sealed preemptive deals with several media 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 Facebook pages of state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp. went blank, along with those of Australia's two big metro newspaper chains, Nine Entertainment Co. Ltd and News Corp. International outlets such as the New York Times, the BBC and Reuters also became invisible.
Also affected were scores of charity accounts, and major state government accounts, including those providing advice on the coronavirus pandemic and bushfire threats at the height of the summer season, though some of these were later restored. Even Facebook's own page was briefly taken down.
Facebook shares traded down 1.1% in premarket dealings on Thursday.
Charities join condemnation
Facebook said in its statement that the law, expected to be passed by parliament within days, "fundamentally misunderstands" the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of complying or banning news.
The tech giant has said news makes up just 4% of what people view on its website. But for Australians, Facebook's role in news delivery is growing. A 2020 University of Canberra study found 21% of Australians use social media as their primary news source and 39% of the population uses Facebook to receive news.
Lisa Davies, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, owned by Nine, tweeted: "Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform."
Well, that’s a tantrum. Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform. Even more important to subscribe to a news outlet you respect. I suggest @smh obvs pic.twitter.com/6gwopjZJt0— Lisa Davies (@lisazdavies) February 17, 2021
Charities whose pages were affected joined in the condemnation: "Demand for food relief has never been higher than during this pandemic, and one of our primary comms tools to help connect people with #foodrelief info & advice is now unavailable," tweeted Brianna Casey, chief executive of hunger relief charity Foodbank. "Hours matter when you have nothing to eat. SORT THIS OUT!"
This is UNACCEPTABLE. Demand for food relief has never been higher than during this pandemic, and one of our primary comms tools to help connect people with #foodrelief info & advice is now unavailable. Hours matter when you have nothing to eat. SORT THIS OUT! #facebooknewsban. pic.twitter.com/xYVnrKQQeF— Brianna Casey (@briannacasey1) February 18, 2021
Human Rights Watch called the move "an alarming and dangerous turn of events."
"Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable."
(Reporting by Byron Kaye Editing by Jane Wardell, Kim Coghill, Peter Graff and Keith Weir)