Facebook’s chaotic PR response to Australian outrage over the company's accidental’ decision to pull the plug on dozens of essential services pages has further ratcheted up tensions between the $800 billion tech giant and the Land Down Under.
On Thursday, Australians awoke to find that Queensland Health, NSW Fire and Rescue Service, UNICEF Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology, the National Homeless Collective, Cricket Australia, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and dozens of other emergency service, charity, sport and women’s domestic violence help pages had been blocked from posting content.
The block came as Facebook made good on its threat to restrict news sharing after Australia’s House of Representatives passed the long-awaited media code legislation, which has yet to come into force and will now be debated by the Senate.
The block on the essential services’ pages was removed later in the day, with the company issuing a statement explaining that because “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.”
Speaking to Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Jack Snape about the fracas, Simon Milner, Facebook’s head of policy for the Asia-Pacific region, appeared to blame Australian lawmakers for the potentially deadly mix-up.
“One of the criticisms we had about the law that was passed by the House of Representatives yesterday is that the definition of news is incredibly broad and vague, and therefore in responding to the law and restricting the sharing of news, some of that has affected pages that probably don’t think of themselves as news, but under the law they may well be,” Milner said.
Asked whether the algorithm to block news pages was tested before it ended up affecting major emergency services and helpline pages, as well as dozens of small businesses, the company representative simply reiterated that “the law itself is very vague.”
"We did not want to do this,” Milner stressed, suggesting that “this is caused by the law that was passed by the House of Representatives yesterday.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison blasted Facebook’s decision on Thursday, accusing the social media giant of “unfriending” his country, and calling the blocking of news “as arrogant as they were disappointing.”
Morrison stressed that Canberra “will not be intimidated by big tech,” suggesting that “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.”
Milner's comments fueled outrage on Twitter, with users slamming the Facebook representative for his comments and unrepentant approach. #DeleteFacebook has also been trending on Twitter in Australia.
The dispute between Facebook and Australia centers around the “News Media Bargaining Code” legislation, which demands that the social giant and Google negotiate payments to Australian outlets for use of their news content. Both Facebook and Google have balked at the idea of paying Australian media for content, arguing that companies already gain from clicks and referrals to their websites.
Other countries have joined the debate, with the US warning that the legislation’s terms “raise concerns with respect to Australia’s international trade obligations.” Canada, meanwhile, has expressed support for the media code idea, with a minister in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet saying Ottawa needs a similar law. The European Union and the UK are reportedly also mulling comparable legislation.
Australia’s Senate is widely expected to pass the media code into law next week.