When Zak Kirkup woke up on Thursday to campaign ahead of March’s state election in Western Australia, he got a nasty shock: his Facebook page had been blocked because of the US group’s ban on news, while his political opponent’s had not.
“Alright, time to reactivate my MySpace account,” the Liberal party’s leader in the state joked on Twitter.
It quickly became clear that Facebook’s early morning move to scrub out all Australian news content from its platform was having big repercussions, with scores of pages hosting critical government health and emergency information inadvertently knocked offline.
Domestic violence charities, Australia’s weather agency and even Facebook’s own Facebook page fell victim to the social media company’s attempt to evade a draft law aimed at forcing Big Tech companies to pay publishers for content displayed on their platforms.
“We lost our Facebook page for a day — all our posts just disappeared,” Janet Saunders, chief executive of Hobart Women’s Shelter, told the Financial Times.
“It was very concerning for us because if someone was looking for information about the shelter, they would not have had access to it,” she added. Facebook restored access to the page on Friday.
Facebook has blamed the broad definition of news as written in Australia’s so-called news media bargaining code, which is being debated in parliament, for the digital purge. On Friday, it apologised and rushed to restore non-news-related Facebook pages. However, the company’s failure to notify the government or publishers before pulling the plug on content has provoked a furious reaction in Australia.
Mark McGowan, Kirkup’s electoral rival and premier of Western Australia, said Facebook had “spat the dummy”. “They are behaving more like North Korea than an American company,” the Labor politician added.
Critics have asked how Facebook was able to comprehensively ban genuine news from its platforms, despite struggling in recent years to remove misinformation, hate speech and other offensive material. Hashtag terms such as #deletefacebook and #BoycottZuckerberg have begun trending on Twitter in Australia following the ban.
Peter Dutton, Australia’s home affairs ministers, accused the social media company of “arrogance” on Thursday and warned that its separate focus on end-to-end encryption on its messaging service would “make it easier for paedophiles to share child sexual exploitation material”.
Australia’s treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who just days before the ban told reporters he had enjoyed “constructive” discussions with Mark Zuckerberg over the code, cancelled a morning tennis match for further talks with the Facebook founder.
Scott Morrison, prime minister, accused the social media company of “unfriending Australia” in a statement posted on his Facebook page later in the day. He subsequently discussed the dispute with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, on a scheduled call and flagged that Canberra would seek global support for forcing Big Tech to pay for news in other jurisdictions as well.
“What Australia will do here is likely to be followed by many other western jurisdictions,” said Morrison.
That would do little to help news publishers, whose referral traffic to their websites from Facebook has vanished following the ban.
Those that are suffering include Junkee Media, a small publisher that targets young people and which relies on Google and Facebook to drive traffic to its content. Neil Ackland, chief executive, said Facebook’s decision was disappointing.
“On a wider scale, this decision will undoubtedly have an outsized effect on small and medium-sized digital publishers and a detrimental impact on the diversity of media voices available to Australians,” he said. “Our concern is that they would not find news elsewhere, but simply stop reading news.”
Small businesses, many of which rely on Facebook advertising to attract customers, are also concerned.
“It’s caused a lot of uncertainty in the market,” said Sagar Sethi, founder of Xugar, a digital marketing agency. Facebook “helps businesses generate revenue . . . this will have a wider impact on the economy”, he added.