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Facebook Dubbed 'Bully' as Backlash Grows over Dispute with Australia

An illustration image shows a phone screen with the "Facebook" logo and Australian newspapers in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 18, 2021.
An illustration image shows a phone screen with the "Facebook" logo and Australian newspapers in Canberra, Australia, Feb. 18, 2021.

An international backlash was growing Thursday to Facebook blocking users of its platform in Australia from viewing or sharing links to domestic and international news stories, with the social media giant accused of behaving like a “bully.”

Facebook’s move to block the content ahead of Australian lawmakers approving a new measure forcing the company to pay media organizations is prompting widespread condemnation from politicians in Europe and North America.

They say the social media giant is being disrespectful of democracy and shamelessly exploiting its monopolistic commercial power.

"What the proposed law introduced in Australia fails to recognize is the fundamental nature of the relationship between our platform and publishers," Campbell Brown, Facebook's vice president of global news partnerships, wrote in a post Wednesday. "I hope in the future, we can include news for people in Australia once again."

Rights groups also joined in with scathing criticism. Amnesty International said it was “extremely concerning that a private company is willing to control access to information that people rely on.”

It added, “Facebook's willingness to block credible news sources also stands in sharp distinction to the company's poor track record in addressing the spread of hateful content and disinformation on the platform.”

Access cut

Facebook’s action means that users located outside Australia are unable to access via the platform news produced by Australian broadcasters and newspapers, and people inside Australia cannot access any news content via Facebook at all.

Facebook’s move is not deterring the Australian Parliament from approving the new law — the world’s first to require social media companies to pay media outlets for using their content.

The law will likely come into force next week. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Facebook had “unfriended Australia.” He described the company as arrogant and bullying and warned that Facebook was stoking international fears about oversized technology companies.

Under Australia’s new media code, social media companies will be required to reach a payment deal for news content linked or shared on their platforms. If an agreement proves elusive, an independent arbitrator can set pricing.

Facebook’s block took effect overnight Wednesday, with the digital giant preventing the sharing of news, including content from the country’s public broadcasters, as well as government pages featuring weather and emergency service warnings. Sharing or linking to community, women’s health and domestic violence pages also disappeared.

Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said it was a “dangerous turn of events. Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”

“We will not be intimidated by this act of bullying by Big Tech,” Morrison said in a statement.

He added, “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them. They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they should run it.”

Morrison’s remarks were echoed elsewhere.

In Britain, Facebook’s action was described by Conservative lawmaker Julian Knight, chairman of a parliamentary culture and media committee, as “one of the most idiotic but also deeply disturbing corporate moves of our lifetimes.

“Australia's democratically elected government is democratically elected. And they have the right to make laws and legislation. And it's really disrespecting democracy to act in this fashion,” he told British broadcaster Sky News.

In 2019, a British government review found that Facebook and Google had a damaging impact on Britain’s news media because they attracted the lion’s share of online advertising revenue, starving private sector broadcasters and newspapers of income. Researchers found that 61% of British media advertising goes to either Facebook or Google.

Google threatened to take similar action, but last week it began signing preemptive payment deals. Google also has been striking voluntary deals in Britain and some European countries.

Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s competition commissioner, said Facebook and Google, owner of the world’s most used search engine, act like “a de facto duopoly.”

In a post, Facebook told Australia’s 18 million users that it had acted reluctantly and argued the new law misunderstood the relationship between Facebook and publishers who use it to share news content.

Facebook advocates

But Facebook also has defenders in the tech industry.

Mike Masnick, founder of the California-based blog, said users are not being blocked from accessing news. "Contrary to the idea that this is an 'attack' on journalism or news in Australia, it's not. The news still exists in Australia. News companies still have websites. People can still visit those websites," he said in a blog post.

Australia's move to tax links is alarming, Masnick adds. "This is fundamentally against the principles of an open internet. The government saying that you can't link to a news site unless you pay a tax should be seen as inherently problematic for a long list of reasons. At a most basic level, it's demanding payment for traffic."

On Thursday, the tech giant started to allow access via its platform from public health websites.

Facebook’s move to block media content in Australia was lambasted by Britain’s News Media Association. Henry Faure Walker, chairman of the group, said the action showed why countries need to coordinate robust regulation. He said the action was “a classic example” of a monopoly power “trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves.”

Facebook’s British critics also highlighted emerging news that the tech giant has accepted funding from China’s state-controlled media organizations, including the China Daily newspaper and China Global Television Network (CGTN), to promote Chinese government denials that Beijing has been targeting ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in the northwest region of Xinjiang in what the U.S. government has labeled a “genocide.”

An investigation this week by Britain’s trade journal the Press Gazette unearthed details of payments being made by Chinese state-controlled media to Facebook to advertise and promote the stories dismissing international concerns over the plight of the Uighurs as Western “disinformation."