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Facebook ‘unfriends’ Australia: global uproar as news pages go dark

SYDNEY: Facebook faced a worldwide backlash from publishers and politicians on Thursday after blocking news feeds in Australia in a surprise escalation of a dispute with the government over a law to require it to share revenue from news.

Facebook wiped out pages from Australian state governments and charities as well as from domestic and international news organisations, three days before the launch of a nationwide COVID-19 vaccination programme.

Though the measure was limited to Australia, denunciations came from far afield, with politicians elsewhere describing it as an attempt to put pressure on governments that are considering similar measures around the world.

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on his own Facebook page.

“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.”

The dispute centres on a planned Australian law that would require Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google to reach commercial deals to pay news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or agree a price through arbitration.

Facebook said it had blocked a wide swathe of pages because the draft law did not clearly define news content. It said its commitment to combat misinformation had not changed, and it would restore pages that were taken down by mistake.

“The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content,” a company spokesman said. “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.”

The head of the British parliamentary committee overseeing the media industry, Julian Knight, was among politicians abroad who thought the message was aimed far beyond Australia. Publishers say platforms such as Google and Facebook hoard the bulk of revenue as media shifts online as print and broadcast advertising shrivels, forcing newspapers and TV and radio stations to scale down newsrooms or shut.

Jurisdictions around the world have been enacting rules to require Google, Facebook and others to share revenue with publishers, including a 2019 directive from Brussels which European Union countries are meant to enact into law by June. Google has complained that Australia’s rules go further than Europe’s, because they would apply even to links and snippets of articles, which it says limits internet users’ free speech.

Still, Facebook’s action in Australia represented a tactical split with Google. They had campaigned together against such laws and both threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google sealed preemptive deals with several media outlets in recent days.—Reuters

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