Australia’s fire services, charities and politicians blocked in Facebook’s chaotic news ban

Facebook’s sudden and dramatic decision to block people from sharing news in Australia has had unexpected consequences for a wide range of government organizations and service groups, who woke up Thursday to find that their pages had been inexplicably swept up in the company’s far-reaching ban, too.

The American social media giant said Wednesday that it would stop people in Australia from sharing or viewing news from local and international outlets in response to proposed legislation in the country that would force tech firms to pay news publishers for content.

Although some of the pages have now been reinstated — and Facebook says it will reverse pages “inadvertently impacted” by its move — questions remain in Australia about why they were pulled down by Facebook in the first place.

FoodBank Australia Chief Executive Brianna Casey tweeted that her organization, a major hunger relief charity in the country, could no longer access its page on Thursday.

“Demand for food relief has never been higher than during this pandemic,” she said. “Hours matter when you have nothing to eat. SORT THIS OUT!”

Many other charities, including the 1800Respect domestic violence support line and a range of health organizations working with Indigenous Australians, also found their pages blocked Thursday.

So did state and territory health departments, including those of Queensland and South Australia.

“Facebook isn’t the only way we reach people but it’s an significant one,” said Robert Hoge, the executive director of strategic communications at Queensland Health, in a statement. Queensland is Australia’s third-most populous state and home to the city of Brisbane.

“We are in the process of rolling out the first phase of our COVID-19 vaccine program and social media is a key tool with which to communicate this information,” he said, adding that Facebook had gotten this decision “wrong.”

Facebook blocks users in  Australia from finding or sharing news

Queensland Health and 1800Respect were among the pages that had been reinstated by midday.

Much of the criticism was directed at Facebook, which Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said during a press conference had given the government no warning of its imminent ban.

“We are in the midst of a once in a century global pandemic,” Brendan Crabb, director and CEO of the Melbourne-based Burnet Institute medical research group told CNN Business. “Has there ever been a time when the general population is more in need of quality, highly reliable, up-to-date health information?”

At least one Australian politician also found his professional page affected. In Western Australia, which will hold a state election in just a few weeks, opposition leader Zak Kirkup’s Facebook page was blocked. But Premier Mark McGowan’s was still accessible.

While many pages run by government branches and other services were blocked, the ban on sharing content did not appear to be universal. For example, while some users reported that the page for the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Service was blocked, Queenland’s fire and emergency service pages were left untouched.

Here's why publishers, lawmakers, and tech execs are all monitoring Facebook's Australian blockade

Facebook said in a statement that government pages “should not be impacted” by the announcement, adding that its actions were focused on “restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.”

As the proposed 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 company said, adding that it would reverse the effects on any pages “that are inadvertently impacted.”

The initial rollout of the ban outraged some Australian politicians, who took the opportunity to point out that Facebook continues to struggle to contain the distribution of misinformation on its platform.

Greens Party Senator Larissa Waters said on Twitter that blocking access to Facebook pages for women’s domestic violence services was “utterly reprehensible.”

“They allow fake news to spread and now block real news AND SUPPORT SERVICES so they don’t have to pay journos whose content they profit off,” she tweeted.

Facebook said Thursday that its “commitment to combat misinformation” has not changed, adding that it is directing people to “authoritative health information” on the coronavirus, for example.

Months of tension

Facebook’s move follows months of tension between Big Tech firms and the Australian government. The country is working to pass legislation that would force tech platforms to pay news publishers for content posted to their sites — instead of being freely distributed, as that content is now.
The two sides need each other: The platforms need publishers to populate their search results and feeds, providing users local, up-to-date and reliable information on what’s happening. And publishers need the platforms to help drive audience numbers to their sites. But for years, publishers have said platforms like Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) take unfair advantage of the news media, giving them little in return.

Facebook and Google, though, have argued that Australia’s legislation is unworkable and unfairly punishes them.

Google threatens to shut down search in Australia
Facebook had been working with Australia for years to find a solution that “recognizes the realities of how our services work,” wrote William Easton, managing director for Facebook Australia and New Zealand, in a blog post on the company’s website Wednesday.

“Unfortunately this legislation does not do that,” Easton said, adding that the new ban was made with a “heavy heart.” “Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.”

While Google had also threatened to take drastic action, saying last month that it could shut down search in Australia if the legislation passed, the company has now appeared to take a different approach than Facebook. It recently announced a three-year deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (NWS) in which the tech giant will pay to license News Corp content.

Facebook’s sudden imposition of the ban, meanwhile, may reflect poorly on that company, according to Tai Neilson, an expert in journalism and digital media at Australia’s Macquarie University.

Neilson said in a commentary that Facebook’s rapid removal of Australian news content raised questions about how serious it is about cracking down on dangerous misinformation on its platform, much of which has lingered for years without being banned.

“Facebook already suffers from a lack of good will amongst the public and this may be the last straw for many Facebook users,” Neilson said.

— Michelle Toh contributed to this report.

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