According to company whistleblowers, when Facebook temporarily barred all news from being uploaded on its site in Australia last year, it adopted an extremely broad definition of news publisher that it knew would inflict collateral harm. According to The Wall Street Journal, the corporation participated in “a criminal conspiracy to gain an item of value, namely advantageous regulatory treatment,” according to complaints filed with Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission and the US Department of Justice.
Facebook implemented the news embargo in February in response to a planned Australian law that would effectively require platform owners such as Facebook and Google to pay news publishers when distributing their material. But the ban was chaotically applied, and there were frequent allegations of it barring government agencies and NGOs alongside news outlets.
Government agencies including the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia and Queensland Health, as well as NGOs like Mission Australia and the Hobart Women’s Shelter, were among the non-media pages that were blocked. According to the Wall Street Journal, the prohibition occurred during Australia’s fire season and corresponded with the country’s COVID-19 vaccination deployment. According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook realized it had banned 17,000 pages it shouldn’t have on the first day of the ban.
In statements cited by the Wall Street Journal, one whistleblower claimed, “It was evident this was not us complying with the law, but a strike on civic institutions and emergency services in Australia.” After the House of Representatives passed an original version of the measure on February 18th, but before final votes by it and the Australian Senate the following week, Facebook began erasing the pages.
Due to a lack of “clear guidance” in the legislation, Facebook openly confessed at the time that it had used a “broad definition” of news material. Internal communications records discovered by the WSJ add to the evidence that this was the case. In an internal log, a product manager wrote, “[The proposed Australian law] we are reacting to is fairly wide, therefore direction from the policy and legal team has been to be overinclusive and revise as we acquire more information.”
According to leaked documents, Facebook classified a page as a news publisher if more than 60% of the content it shared was classified as news. According to documents, the business intended to exempt all government and educational domains from the prohibition.
However, the list of organizations whose Facebook pages were erased as a result of the ban implies that these measures failed, and the Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook rejected techniques that may have targeted news organizations more carefully. The corporation chose not to utilize its News Page Index database of news publishers, ostensibly because it relied on news publishers to opt-in, and the allegations say that it neglected to employ existing whitelisting methods to safeguard crucial accounts. Before restricting pages, it neglected to set up an appeals mechanism and did not notify impacted pages in advance.
Despite the technical difficulties with the media ban, Facebook executives complimented the company’s approach to the legislation internally. “The thoughtfulness of the approach, accuracy of execution, and capacity to stay adaptable as things developed [established] a new high-standard,” Facebook’s head of partnerships Campbell Brown said, while Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, stated. The team’s ability to “deliver rapidly and take a principled approach” was complimented by CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“The papers in issue clearly reveal that we planned to exempt Australian government Pages from limitations in an effort to minimize the effect of this foolish and bad law,” Facebook spokesperson Gina Murphy said when asked for comment. We apologized and attempted to solve a technical mistake that prevented us from doing so as intended. Any claim to the contrary is unequivocally and unmistakably untrue.”
Later that month, the law against which Facebook was protesting was passed. However, it did so with altered wording that requires the Australian Treasurer to examine private agreements reached between publishers and platforms before identifying a firm like Facebook as a platform under the statute and forcing it to arbitrate. As a result, despite the fact that the law was established over a year ago, neither Facebook nor Google have been legally identified as platforms under the guidelines.