In a surprise retaliatory move, Facebook blocks Australians from sharing news stories, escalating a fight with the government over whether powerful tech companies should have to pay news organizations for content.
Australia’s government condemns the step, which also blocks some government communications, including messages about emergency services, and some commercial pages.
The digital platforms fear that what’s happening in Australia will become an expensive precedent for other countries as governments revamp laws to catch up with the fast-changing digital world.
Facebook acted after the House of Representatives passed legislation that would make it and Google pay for Australian journalism, said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. He said he was given no warning before Facebook acted. The legislation must be passed by the Senate to become law.
Australian news organizations could not post stories and people who tried to share existing news stories got notifications saying they were blocked from doing so.
“This post can’t be shared,” the website says. “In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted.”
The legislation mentioned by the notice has not yet been enacted.
“Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Frydenberg says.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison lashes out on his own Facebook page.
“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Morrison posts.
“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior 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,” he added. “We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament.”
Facebook says the proposed Australian law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it.”
“This is an assault on a sovereign nation,” Health Minster Greg Hunt tells Parliament. “It is an assault on people’s freedom and, in particular, it’s an utter abuse of big technologies’ market power and control over technology.”
The government contends the proposed News Media Bargaining Code will ensure media businesses will be paid fairly for journalism linked online. Both Google and Facebook had threatened to retaliate.