The pushback and reaction to Facebook's drastic 'retaliation' on the Australian government has been fierce from both officials and the broader public in the hours following the Wednesday decision of the US-based social media platform to block all news sharing on the continent. Australian officials are warning that Facebook's actions are severely damaging the ability to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Facebook announcement came a day after on Tuesday the current session of parliament vowed to implement the so-called "News Media Bargaining Code" by end of next week. The controversial legislation will force major US-based internet companies to begin paying local Australian publishers for use of their content. Aussies are now barred from posting, sharing or even viewing news content on Facebook whatsoever in a move that Google had previously threatened with its search engine.
According to FT the ban has already "restricted access to critical public information on government health and emergency service sites on Thursday."
Australia's national government has since said that Facebook gave "no warning" of the drastic action, which Canberra officials further slammed as "wrong" and "heavy-handed". However, there doesn't appear appetite for backing down anytime soon; instead, Australia’s treasurer Josh Frydenberg pointed out, "But what today’s events do confirm for all Australians is the immense market power of these media digital giants."
Public health and emergency authorities and experts appear to be saying in unison "the timing couldn't be worse" given the country is in the midst of battling the COVID-19 pandemic. FT offered some of the following examples of public services that immediately had their content blocked as a result of the news sharing ban:
The Facebook pages of Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, Queensland Department of Health and Hobart Women’s Shelter were among dozens hit...
And in another example:
Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said her organisation had been mistakenly blocked by the platform. "Australian workers cannot now find out about their rights at work via Facebook. This is disgraceful & needs to be reversed immediately," she wrote on Twitter.
What Facebook has blocked in Australia so far:— Frances Mao (@francesmao) February 17, 2021
- All news media (local and global)
- Health authorities (and their pandemic/vaccine updates)
- Police and emergency services
- Weather bureau (during bushfire/flood season)
- Domestic violence helpline
- Politicians' accounts
One health expert - Julie Leask, a health professor at the University of Sydney also explained that it's already negatively impacting the vaccine rollout: "Three days before our Covid-19 vaccine rollout, Australians using Facebook as their primary source of news can no longer get access to credible information about vaccination from news organizations and some government and public health organization pages," she said.
Facebook has since said it would restore any blocked content from government pages or posts, claiming that it was "inadvertent".
It happened: Facebook just went off the deep end in Australia. They are blocking *all* news content to Australians, and *no* Australian media can post news.— Kate Crawford (@katecrawford) February 17, 2021
This is what showdowns between states and platforms look like. It's deplatforming at scale.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison meanwhile angrily denounced what he dubbed the "unfriending" of the entire continent, writing on his own Facebook page: "Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing."
"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," he added.
Google had previously led the campaign to shoot down the pending Australian legislation, but in recent days announced last minute preemptive deals with a number of Australian news producers, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, averting the same kind of emerging battle and fierce showdown Facebook and Canberra are now locked in.