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Facebook unfriends Australia: news sites go dark in content row

Australians woke to empty news feeds on their Facebook Inc pages on Thursday after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content. The move was swiftly criticised by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates, particularly as it became clear that official health pages, emergency safety warnings and welfare networks had all been scrubbed from the site along with news.

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on his own Facebook page, using the vernacular for cutting ties with another person on the site.

“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.”

Facebook’s dramatic move represents a split from Alphabet Inc-owned Google after they joined together for years to campaign against the laws. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google has instead sealed preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.

The Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price.

Facebook said in its statement that the law, which is expected to be passed by parliament within days, “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of complying or banning news content.

The tech giant has said news makes up just 4% of what people view on its website, but for Australians Facebook’s role in news delivery is growing. A 2020 University of Canberra study found 21% of Australians use social media as their primary news source, up 3% from the previous year, while 39% of the population uses Facebook to receive news. The same study said 29% of Australian news video content is consumed on Facebook.

The changes made by Facebook wiped clean pages operated by news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharing Australian news, three days before the country begins a nationwide vaccination program to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Facebook unfriends Australia: news sites go dark in content row, Reuters, Feb 18

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