Facebook’s Australian news ban wreaks havoc on government pages

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Facebook made the sudden decision to ban media content on its platform in Australia Thursday, creating chaos when other entities — including a government weather agency and state health department — were also inadvertently blocked.

The social-media giant placed restrictions on Australian news sites as lawmakers in the country consider forcing Facebook and Google into revenue-sharing agreements with news organizations that produce the journalism shared widely on the platforms.

“Facebook was wrong, Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg fumed in a televised news conference.

Frydenberg said he spoke with Face­book CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the weekend — and the news shutdown was never discussed.

Under the changes made by Facebook, Australian publishers can continue to publish news content on the platform, but links and posts can’t be viewed or shared by Australian audiences, the company said in a statement.

Users in Australia are also barred from sharing Australian or international news.

But on Thursday, other non-news accounts also got caught up in the limitations.

The Bureau of Meteorology, a government source for advice about bushfire danger, flooding and other natural disasters, was also briefly erased.

“This is an alarming and dangerous turn of events,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement.

“Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”

The Facebook pages of the Queensland and South Australia state health departments, sources of crucial information about the COVID-19 pandemic, were also left blank for several hours Thursday.

A Facebook spokesperson told The Guardian that blocking the non-news agencies was done in error.

“The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content,” she 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 [but] we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.”

By mid-afternoon in Australia, many government-backed Facebook pages were restored but several charity pages and all media sites remained dark, including those of international outlets like The New York Times, the BBC and News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal.

Laws forcing Facebook and Google to pay for media content passed Australia’s House of Representatives on Wednesday. The Senate is now considering the legislation. Both platforms have criticized the proposed laws. But Google has announced deals with Australian media companies under its own News Showcase model.

With Post wires

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