On Thursday morning, Australians were shocked to wake up to empty news feeds on social media as Facebook had blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.
Facebook on Wednesday announced it has blocked Australians from viewing and sharing news on the platform because of proposed laws in the country to make digital giants pay for journalism.
Why did Facebook block all news content?
On Tuesday, the Australian government said that it would draft laws in order to level the playing field between struggling publishers and tech giants like Google and Facebook.
The government said it would amend amend draft laws that would make Google and Facebook pay for news to clarify that publishers would be paid in lump sums rather than per click on news article links.The conservative government hopes to enact the so-called "News Media Bargaining Code" before the current session of parliament ends on February 25, as reported by Associated Press.
The Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price.
The BBC says that out of every AUS $100 spent on digital advertising these days, $81 goes to these tech giants. But Facebook and Google had both said that the new law was unacceptable and warned of dire consequences.
Facebook and Google Inc had both warned they could cancel services in Australia because of looming laws that will force them to pay local publishers for content.
What did Facebook say about this?
Facebook published an elaborate blog post explaining its actions.
"The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. It has left us 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," the company wrote.
The blog further says, "For Facebook, the business gain from news is minimal. News makes up less than 4% of the content people see in their News Feed. Journalism is important to a democratic society, which is why we build dedicated, free tools to support news organisations around the world in innovating their content for online audiences."
The law, according to Facebook, attempts to penalise the social media platform for news it didn't take or ask for.
"Over the last three years we’ve worked with the Australian Government to find a solution that recognizes the realities of how our services work. We’ve long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations. Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for," the blog added.
What happened to all the news content?
Australian publishers can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts cant be viewed or shared by Australian audiences, the U.S.-based company said in a statement.
Australian users cannot share Australian or international news. International users outside Australia also cannot share Australian news.
In the process of blocking news pages, several Australian emergency services were hit by Facebook's local ban on news content Thursday, with pages that warn the public about Covid outbreaks, bushfires and cyclones rendered blank. Fire, health and meteorological services around the country saw problems with their Facebook pages, amid several serious public emergencies.
As a matter of fact, Facebook ended up banning its own page too.
However, Facebook admits that this was an error and will be reversed. “Government Pages should not be impacted by today’s announcement. The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content. 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. However, we will reverse any Pages that are inadvertently impacted," a Facebook spokesperson said.
Until Facebook reverses the damage, Australians are being denied access to information from health and support services and their governments, with some branding the breadth of the ban as “cruel”.
What about Google in Australia?
Google had threatened to leave Australia if the law came into effect and forced the search giant to pay for news. But it took a u-turn and instead decided to strike up a deal. Alphabet Inc-owned Google has sealed preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp was the latest to announce a deal in which it will receive "significant payments" from Google in return for providing content for the search engine's News Showcase account.
(With inputs from AP, AFP and Reuters)