Facebook’s war on Australians may continue for at least another week despite urgent calls for the company to restore access to vital public safety information, charities, support groups and small businesses on its social network.
The warning comes after the multibillion-dollar tech giant blindsided the Federal Government, holding talks with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, while at the same time stripping access to news and other vital information from its 17 million Australian users today.
Charities and support services including Save the Children Australia, Bowel Cancer Australia, RACQ LifeFlight, and the Domestic Violence Prevention Centre remained unavailable throughout the day after Facebook began removing “a broad definition” of news content to protest laws that would force it to pay for the news it uses.
Media experts have blasted Facebook’s move as “reckless,” “dangerous” and an “epic dummy spit,” and say the multibillion-dollar tech firm has unwittingly provided “the strongest argument we’ve ever had for regulation”.
Facebook began rolling out a ban on Australian news outlets and other organisations on its platform — including government departments — early on Thursday morning.
Facebook managing director Will Easton said the company made the decision “with a heavy heart” to protest Australia’s news media bargaining code, saying the proposed law “misunderstands” how little news content contributed to the social network.
“For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal,” Mr Easton said.
“News makes up less than four per cent of the content people see in their Newsfeed.”
But the company appeared to remove much more than four per cent of its Australian content, not only stripping all posts from media outlets including News.com.au, Nine, Seven, The Guardian and the ABC, but also removing pages set up by state health departments, utility companies, charities, and support agencies for domestic violence and mental health.
The Bureau of Meteorology, Fire and Rescue NSW, Harvey Norman, small businesses and mothers groups were among the organisations left with blank pages.
A Facebook spokesperson said the groups were removed as Facebook had taken “a broad definition (of news) in order to respect the law as drafted,” but access to government agencies had been restored and Facebook could restore other pages swept up in the ban at a later date.
It’s understood that Facebook will launch an appeals process for organisations on February 25, meaning many organisations will not be able to reach their audiences for at least a week.
But Australia Institute Centre for Responsible Technology director Peter Lewis said forcing emergency support groups and charities off Facebook for days was “reckless” and potentially dangerous.
“They could have blood on their hands,” he warned.
Swinburne University media senior lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet said Facebook’s removal of verified, factual information was also particularly poorly timed.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, we need to roll out a COVID vaccine next week, it’s bushfire season — it’s not an ideal time to remove the source of fact-checked information from Facebook,” she said.
“Some of the impacted pages have been restored but not all of them. If you have to go to Facebook right now to access any kind of factual information, you’ll find it’s a mess.”
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed Facebook gave no notice to the Australian government that it was rolling out a ban on news and other information in Australia, even though the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, talked with him that morning.
Mr Frydenberg, who called Facebook’s ban “wrong,” said the Government would not back down from introducing its news media bargaining code as planned.
“Facebook is in no doubt that we’re committed to the code but also we would like to see them here in Australia,” he said.
“But their actions today were unnecessary and wrong.”
Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Facebook’s removal of news and information had gone far beyond its original threats, and he had spoken to executives at the company about restoring access to government sources.
Mr Fletcher said the company’s actions would harm its reputation in Australia.
“They’re effectively saying, ‘You will not find information that meets … standards of accuracy on our site.’ That seems a very surprising position and one that is unlikely to be in the long-term interest of their brand,” he said.
Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said Facebook repeatedly showed it was unwilling to participate in negotiations over Australia’s news code but the company’s “epic dummy spit” had proven the need for the laws.
“This is the strongest argument we’ve ever had for the regulation of Facebook,” he said.
“They have shown they have an outsized power and influence over the way we live our lives, whether it’s over businesses or organisations that are trying to do advocacy or charity work. I don’t think Facebook won anyone over with this move.”