When Australians woke up on Thursday and checked their phones, they found that there was no news on their Facebook walls, whether from local or global media.
And it is that the social network blocked the possibility that its users in Australia can view or share informative content, which generated various questions about public access to key information.
Facebook’s move is in response to a bill that seeks to make tech giants pay for the news content they share.
Companies like Google and Facebook have argued that the law does not reflect how the internet works and unfairly “penalizes” their platforms.
The Australian government says it will go ahead with the law, which was approved by the lower house of Parliament on Wednesday.
“Facebook needs to think very carefully about what this means for its reputation and prestige,” Communications Minister Paul Fletcher told local network ABC.
Many Australians were also unable to access the Facebook pages of the police, emergency services, health departments and the Bureau of Meteorology.
Meanwhile, those outside the country could not read or access any Australian news publication on the platform.
Other pages of charities, politicians, sports groups and other non-media organizations were also affected.
Later, Facebook issued a statement clarifying that these pages had been “inadvertently shocked“and that they would be reinstated, although he did not say when.
A spokesperson said the company had “adopted a broad definition” of the term “news content.”
Discomfort in the population
Facebook’s move sparked an immediate backlash, with many Australians angered by their sudden loss of access to trusted and authoritative sources of information.
“Facebook is acting like an oppressive government, severely restricting and censoring the flow of information to Australians, “said Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch.
Australian Finance Minister Josh Frydenberg tweeted on Thursday that he had had a “constructive” discussion with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“He raised some outstanding questions about the government’s code of negotiation with the media and we agreed to continue our conversation to try to find a way forward,” he said.
The American Economic Liberties Project, a Washington-based antitrust group, also criticized Facebook’s move.
“By censoring Australian publishers to maintain their advertising revenue, Facebook has proven to be a threat to democracies around the world“Research Director Matt Stoller said in a statement.
The news about the blocking of content on Facebook came hours after Google agreed to pay News Corp, owned by tycoon Rupert Murdoch, for the content of the news sites of that conglomerate.
Previously Google, which had threatened to stop providing service in Australia, had reached similar agreements with other Australian media conglomerates.
What did Facebook say?
Facebook announced its new policy in Australia in a post on Wednesday, saying the proposed legislation had left it “facing a tough choice: try to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services. in Australia”.
“With heavy hearts, we are choosing the latter,” the statement said.
Facebook explained that with the new rules Australian users will not be able to read or share news content on the platform, while Australian news publishers will not be able to share or post any content on Facebook pages.
According to the publication of Facebook’s managing director in Australia and New Zealand, William Easton, the platform helped Australian publishers earn around US $ 316 million last year through referrals and advertising.
Easton wrote that the proposed legislation “seeks to penalize Facebook for content that it did not take or request.”
“We hope that in the future the Australian government will recognize the value we already provide and will work with us to strengthen, rather than limit, our partnerships with publishers,” he said.
Facebook wants to make the decisions
Analysis by James Clayton, BBC Technology Correspondent
Australia is not a great market for Facebook. And Facebook says news isn’t a great revenue driver for the company. So why does this law matter so much to you?
What happens is more a matter of context. Other countries have been watching what is happening in Australia. There is speculation that Canada and even the European Union could follow Australia’s lead, something Facebook wants to avoid.
Facebook already pays for some news and has signed trade deals with media companies in the UK, for example.
What Facebook wants to do, however, is make the decisions for itself.
Its executives don’t want governments to intervene by telling them they have to pay for news, even setting the price.
Facebook, then, has decided to show that there are consequences for governments if they want to crack down on big tech companies.
But that could be counterproductive. The fact that Facebook can essentially shut down Australian news on its platform is already being branded undemocratic, even authoritarian, in some quarters.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.