On Wednesday, Feb. 17, Facebook announced that it was blocking Australians from sharing or finding news on its service. The move represents a dramatic escalation of its row with the Australian government that could have wide-ranging consequences for both the country and the rest of the world.
The social media giant’s action comes after months of tension with the Australian government. The latter has proposed new legislation, called the News Media Bargaining Code, that forces tech companies to pay news publishers for content.
“What the proposed law introduced in Australia fails to recognize is the fundamental nature of the relationship between our platform and publishers,” stated Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, in a blog post. “Contrary to what some have suggested, Facebook does not steal news content. Publishers choose to share their stories on Facebook.”
“I hope in the future, we can include news for people in Australia once again,” he added.
Prior to this, Facebook had threatened to block content in the country should the bill become law. (Read: US attorneys general sue to break up Facebook)
The move was swiftly criticized by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates. These pointed out that doing so also removed official health and meteorology information. during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the height of the country’s Summer bushfire season.
“Facebook was wrong, Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg stated during a televised news conference.
Frydenberg pointed out that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had given no warning of the news shutdown when they spoke over the weekend about the bill.
Those in the media have raised fears that Facebook’s actions could lead to a rampant spread of misinformation.
“Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform,” warned Lisa Davies, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has 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,” it said in a statement.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, on the other hand, warned that the social media company is sending the wrong message. He said that Facebook is telling Australians that “you will not find content on our platform which comes from an organization which employs professional journalists, which has editorial policies, which has fact-checking processes.”
Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, wrote a series of tweets where she said that while Facebook was within its right to remove access to news, how it did so was “potentially damaging and reckless.”
In addition, she also defended Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code. She said that such a law was necessary to keep social media companies like Facebook in check.
“The interaction of news services with platforms, the distribution of news services, the support for journalism needs regulation,” she said. “The Aus act might not be the right law, but, arguably it is better than no law. More enforceable civic obligations are needed not fewer.”
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