Facebook blocked dozens of charity groups, nonprofit organizations, and even random big box retailers in Australia late Wednesday (early Thursday, local time), a move that appears to be collateral damage from Facebook’s ban on news in the country. Facebook even briefly blocked its own page in Australia, according to multiple reports and confirmation from a Facebook spokesperson.
Facebook blocked all “news” content from being distributed on its platform in Australia on Wednesday over a decision by the federal government to potentially implement new rules that would force big tech companies to negotiate with news outlets and pay for news content. Facebook says the proposed rules are an attempt, “to penalize Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.”
Organizations that were swept up in the ban on Thursday include the Council to Homeless Persons, the Kids Cancer Project, and the state governments of Tasmania and South Australia, according to a list compiled on Twitter by Australian journalist Kevin Nguyen.
It appears the Facebook page for the government of South Australia has been restored in Australia, along with Facebook’s own page, but the content of many others it still inaccessible, including the page of Tasmania’s government.
Facebook’s ban on news in Australia, from homegrown newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian to international websites like Gizmodo, is a retaliatory move that will likely grind the website down over time.
Australian users who tried to share news content on Thursday local time were met with a red-letter notice at the bottom of their unpublished post that reads, “Something went wrong. We’re working on getting it fixed as soon as we can.” The Facebook notice does not mention the tech giant’s current battle with the Australian government.
When reached for comment over email, Facebook didn’t admit that it had inadvertently banned non-news pages, let alone its own page, but said that if it had made a mistake, those pages would be restored soon.
“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,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo over email.
“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,” the spokesperson continued.
Some of the organizations and businesses caught up in the Facebook ban were particularly bizarre, including Harvey Norman, an Australian big box retailer similar to Best Buy in the U.S. The Women’s Rugby League was also blocked, though men’s sports in the country seemed to be unaffected.
Government health care organizations were also blocked in Australia, including Western Sydney Health, South Australia Health, and the Sydney Local Health District. Australia is currently ramping up its plan to vaccinate millions of people for covid-19, something that could seemingly be hampered if vital health care organizations are unable to distribute information to citizens.
Several non-government charity organizations like the anti-homelessness group Sacred Heart Mission were also blocked, along with other public services like the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the Western Australia Department of Fire and Emergency Services. The latter provides crucial updates during fire season that can mean the difference between life and death.
Australia’s satirical news site The Chaser was banned before being restored on Thursday and the comedy group naturally made a joke about the ban after it got access to its page again.
Google previously threatened to cut off all searches in Australia if the federal government went forward with its plans, something that Prime Minister Scott Morrison didn’t seem too concerned about, saying last month “we don’t respond to threats.” Morrison later pointed out that he’d been in discussions with Microsoft and hinted that Bing was a perfectly acceptable alternative to Google.
But Google appears to have come to the negotiating table in recent days, even if it would rather not look like it was folding to pressure. Google signed agreements with large publishers in Australia this week, including own with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which was one of the biggest proponents of Australia’s proposed “Media Code.”
What does the future hold for news content in Facebook down under? That’s anyone guess. Facebook has previously said that only 4% of content on the platform in Australia contains links to news. But even if that’s true, users will likely get frustrated with their inability to simply share links to news articles that they find interesting.
If you can’t do basic sharing on a platform like Facebook it’s hard to see why users would put up with what appears to them like simply a bug. But, then again, anyone who’s still on Facebook in 2021 is already putting up with a lot of garbage.
Update, 1:15 a.m. ET: Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has released a statement calling Facebook’s actions “as arrogant as they were disappointing.” The statement was released on… Facebook:
Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing. I am in regular contact with the leaders of other nations on these issues.
These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech 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 run it.
We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament as it votes on our important News Media Bargaining Code. Just as we weren’t intimidated when Amazon threatened to leave the country and when Australia drew other nations together to combat the publishing of terrorist content on social media platforms.
I encourage Facebook to constructively work with the Australian Government, as Google recently demonstrated in good faith.
What happens next? Well, it looks like Australian Facebook users are going to be without news content for quite a while until one side blinks. Morrison doesn’t appear to be backing down.