An illustration image shows a phone screen with the "Facebook" logo and Australian newspapers in Canberra on Thursday. Reuters
Facebook faced a worldwide backlash from publishers and politicians on Thursday after blocking news feeds in Australia in a surprise escalation of a dispute with the government over a law to require it to share revenue from news.
Facebook wiped out pages from Australian state governments and charities as well as from domestic and international news organisations, three days before the launch of a nationwide COVID-19 vaccination programme.
A 3D printed Facebook logo is seen in front of displayed Australia's flag. File / Reuters
Though the measure was limited to Australia, denunciations came from far afield, with politicians elsewhere describing it as an attempt to put pressure on governments that are considering similar measures around the world.
"Facebook's actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing," Australian 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 behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them."
The dispute centres on a planned Australian law that would require Facebook and Alphabet Inc's Google to reach commercial deals to pay news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or agree a price through arbitration.
Facebook said it had blocked a wide swathe of pages because the draft law did not clearly define news content. It said its commitment to combat misinformation had not changed, and it would restore pages that were 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."
The head of the British parliamentary committee overseeing the media industry, Julian Knight, was among politicians abroad who thought the message was aimed far beyond Australia.
The ABC News Facebook page is seen on a screen in Canberra. Reuters
"This action - this bully boy action - that they've undertaken in Australia will I think ignite a desire to go further amongst legislators around the world," Knight told Reuters.
"I think they're almost using Australia as a test of strength for global democracies as to whether or not they wish to impose restrictions on the way in which they do business," he said. "So, we're all behind Australia in my view."
News publishers saw Facebook's tactics as evidence that the company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, cannot be trusted as the gatekeeper for their industry.
Henry Faure Walker, chairman of Britain's News Media Association industry group, said 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."
The head of Germany's BDZV news publishers' association, Dietmar Wolff, said: "It is high time that governments all over the world limit the market power of the gatekeeper platforms." Facebook shares traded down 1.5% on Thursday.
A funny thing happened in Australia: millions of people were cut off from vital sources of information. According to Facebook, only around four per cent of all content viewed on the site’s news feed by Australians is journalism. But for many who are staying
Australia will be the first country where a government arbitrator will decide the price to be paid by the tech giants if commercial negotiations with local news outlets fail.
Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg welcomed the report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, although it was unclear which of the recommendations the government may implement.
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