Australia PM says country ‘not intimidated’ by Facebook news ban

By BBC On Thu, 18 Feb, 2021 12:51 | 2 mins read
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (pictured) is world’s third-wealthiest person after Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. [PHOTO | FILE]
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. His company is warring with Australia in a bid to refuse to pay news content providers. PHOTO | FILE

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said his government will not be intimidated by Facebook blocking news feeds to users.

He described the move to “unfriend Australia” as arrogant and disappointing.

Facebook is responding to a proposed law which would make tech giants pay for news content on their platforms.

Australians on Thursday woke up to find that Facebook pages of all local and global news sites were unavailable.

People outside the country are also unable to read or access any Australian news publications on the platform.

Several government health and emergency pages were also blocked. Facebook later asserted this was a mistake and many of these pages are now back online.

Google and Facebook have fought the law because they say it doesn’t reflect how the internet works, and unfairly “penalises” their platforms.

However, in contrast to Facebook, Google has in recent days signed payment deals with three major Australian media outlets.

Facebook’s action came just hours after Google agreed to pay Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for content from news sites across its media empire.

What is the response to the ban?

In a statement posted on Facebook, Mr Morrison said that big tech companies might be changing the world but this did not mean they should run it.

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” he said.

“I am in regular contact with the leaders of other nations on these issues. We simply won’t be intimidated,” he added.

Mr Morrison urged Facebook to work constructively with the government, “as Google recently demonstrated in good faith”.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the ban on news information had a “huge community impact”. About 17 million Australians visit the social media site every month.

Other officials were less diplomatic. Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan accused the company of “behaving like a North Korean dictator”.

Others suggested that a news vacuum could be filled by misinformation and conspiracy theories. In a tweet, Sydney Morning Herald editor Lisa Davies described the move as a “tantrum”.

Human Rights Watch’ Australia director said Facebook was censoring the flow of information in the country – calling it a “dangerous turn of events”.

“Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable,” said Elaine Pearson.

What about the public reaction?

Many Australians are angry about their sudden loss of access to trusted and authoritative sources.

“It feels obviously very restrictive in what Facebook is going to allow people to do in the future, not only in Australia but around the world,” Sydney man Peter Firth told the BBC.

Amelia Marshall said she could not believe the firm’s decision “in the middle of a pandemic”, adding: “I’ve made the long-overdue decision to permanently delete my Facebook account.”

Why is Facebook doing this?

Australian authorities had drawn up the laws to “level the playing field” between the tech giants and struggling publishers over profits. Of every A$100 (£56; $77) spent on digital advertising in Australian media these days, A$81 goes to Google and Facebook.

But Facebook said the law left it “facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia”.

“With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter,” it said in a blog post.

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