Meta used power in a way that threatened public safety during fire season and in the midst of a global pandemic in order to coerce the Australian Parliament. They deliberately shut down major Facebook accounts just to strong-arm the Australian government.
The tech giant’s senior brass used a blanket news restriction across Australia in early 2021, which saw non-profits and government agencies’ Facebook sites locked down as well, to acquire leverage amid tense negotiations over an approaching media payment law.
Whistleblower Aid, based in the United States, announced on May 5 that it had made disclosures on behalf of former Facebook employees with the United States Department of Justice and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
According to a press release, Facebook “over blocked” essential Australian Facebook pages pertaining to emergency departments and even weather agencies for five days between February 17 and February 22, 2021.
The effort was made in an attempt to achieve favorable modifications to the upcoming News Media Bargaining Code, which would have forced Facebook (and Google) to negotiate payment rates for content with local media publishers.
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The technology giant had cautioned months before that it would be forced to merely delete news sites in reaction to the law; nonetheless, the ban was implemented without warning and went beyond simply banning news sites.
Soon later, Facebook announced that the ban will be lifted, but it made no apology or admission of responsibility.
“They (Meta) used that power in a way that threatened public safety during fire season and in the midst of a global pandemic in order to coerce the Australian Parliament,” according to Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid. “This wasn’t just an example of a corporate actor behaving recklessly; Facebook intentionally put lives at risk to protect its bottom line.”
The World Wildlife Foundation Australia, St Vincent’s Health, Suicide Prevention Australia, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and Safe Steps Family Violence Response Center were among the organizations affected by the prohibition.
Furthermore, Facebook has been accused of ignoring conventional procedure—which may have avoided the removal of non-news-related pages—in order to speed up the “full rollout” of the ban.
“Facebook did not develop or utilize lists of sensitive accounts that it should take care not to block for reasons of public health or safety and did not create any formal appeals process for sites that were improperly blocked,” the statement said.
“Facebook managers told lower-level staff not to make any written record of the ‘intent’ of the takedown,” it continued.
According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, Google did not use an existing database of news producers, instead developing a new “algorithmic news classifier” that would ban any page with more than 60% of the content comprising news.
Following the news restriction, the leadership team, including founder Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and Campbell Brown, head of news partnerships, delivered congratulations notes to employees.
“The thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved sets a new high standard,” according to an email from Sandberg.
“We were able to execute quickly and take a principled approach for our community around the world while achieving what might be the best possible outcome in Australia,” Zuckerberg said.
“We landed exactly where we wanted to—and that was only possible because this team was genius enough to pull it off in zero time,” Brown wrote.
Meta, on the other hand, disputed the charges in a statement issued on May 6 AEST.
“The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian government pages from restrictions in an effort to minimise the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation,” a spokesperson said.
“When we were unable to do so as intended due to a technical error, we apologised and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.”
At the time of the suspension, Rob Nicholls, associate professor of competition law at the University of New South Wales, said it was “inconceivable” that one of the world’s largest corporations could commit such a major error.
“Facebook hires some of the brightest and best in terms of algorithm design and software engineering,” he told the media on Feb. 18. “It is inconceivable to me that such a group would be unable to code the difference between a children’s cancer charity and a News Corp newspaper.”
“It has gone about it in a way that suggests either technological ineptitude of the highest order or a deliberate decision to block government health information (in the middle of a pandemic), cancer charities, helplines, and domestic violence support services,” he added.
Nicholls also suspected that Facebook’s Zuckerberg had a hand in the decision.
“The structure of Facebook, where Zuckerberg’s shareholding has significantly more voting weight than ordinary stockholders, is likely to mean that Zuckerberg’s views weigh more heavily than the decisions that would come from a traditional board structure motivated by directors’ fiduciary duties to shareholders,” he said.
Meanwhile, the News Media Bargaining Code was ultimately enacted with certain changes. However, Google and Facebook have already entered into multi-million dollar payment agreements with multiple large media sites in the country without the necessity for the payment law, setting a precedent for other countries to adopt.