When Facebook briefly blocked all news from being published on its platform in Australia last year, it used an overly broad definition of a news publisher that it knew would cause collateral damage, company whistleblowers allege. Complaints filed with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the US Department of Justice allege that the company engaged in “a criminal conspiracy to obtain something of value, namely favorable regulatory treatment.” The Wall Street Journal reports.
The news ban was put in place by Facebook last february in protest at a proposed Australian law that would effectively force platform owners like this one and Google to pay news publishers when they share their content. But the ban was implemented chaotically and there were widespread reports about it. blocking of government organizations and non-profit organizations with the news editors.
Non-media pages blocked included government organizations such as the Western Australian Fire and Emergency Services Department and Queensland Health and non-profit organizations such as Mission Australia and the Hobart Women’s Shelter. The ban took place during the fire season in Australia, the WSJ notes, and coincided with the launch of the country’s COVID-19 vaccine. Altogether, the WSJ reports that Facebook internally acknowledged that it had blocked 17,000 pages it shouldn’t have on the first day of the ban.
“It was clear that it was not us who were following the law, but a blow to civic institutions and emergency services in Australia,” said one whistleblower, in comments reported by the WSJ. Facebook began removing the Pages on February 18, after the House of Representatives passed an initial version of the bill, but before the final votes of the bill and the Australian Senate the following week.
Facebook publicly admitted at the time that it had taken a “broad definition” of news content, in light of what it said was a lack of “clear guidance” in the law. Logs of internal conversations obtained by the WSJ offer further evidence that this was the case. “[The proposed Australian law] we are responding to is extremely broad, so the policy and legal team’s guidance has been to be overly inclusive and refine as we get more information,” a product manager wrote in an internal log.
Leaked documents suggest the company classified a Page as a news publisher if more than 60 percent of the content it shared was classified as news. The documents also suggest that the company had planned to exclude all government and educational domains from the ban.
But the list of organizations that had their Facebook pages removed as a result of the ban suggests that these security measures failed and, according to the WSJ, Facebook ignored approaches that might have been more accurately targeted at news organizations. The company decided not to use its database of news publishers known as the News Page Index, apparently because it relied on news publishers to participate, and complaints allege that it didn’t use existing whitelisting tools to protect important accounts. It did not implement an appeal process before blocking the pages and did not notify the affected pages in advance.
Despite the technical issues with the media ban, Facebook officials internally praised the company’s response to the legislation. Facebook’s head of partnerships, Campbell Brown, called the team’s efforts “great,” while chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said “consideration of strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay agile as things evolved [set] a new high standard.” CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised the team’s ability to “execute quickly and take a principled approach.”
Reached for comment, Facebook spokeswoman Gina Murphy sent a statement saying: “The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian government pages from restrictions in an effort to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation. When we couldn’t get it done as planned due to a technical error, we apologize and work to fix it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.”
The law that Facebook protested became approved later that month. But he did so while containing amended language that means the Australian Treasurer must consider private agreements reached between publishers and platforms before designating a company like Facebook as a platform under the law and allowing it to be forced to submit to arbitration. As a result, more than a year after the law was passed, neither Facebook nor Google have been officially designated as platforms under the rules.