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‘Time to reactivate MySpace’: the day Australia woke up to a Facebook news blackout | Facebook


At 5.30am Australian east coast time, after months of threats and failed attempts to lobby the government over proposed new media laws, Facebook banned the sharing of news in Australia.

The first to notice were morning news producers. The main page of the national broadcaster, ABC, was down. Guardian Australia’s page was also down. Australians trying to post links to news publishers on their personal Facebook pages received an error message.

Australia’s media bargaining code, which will force tech giants Facebook and Google to broker deals with Australian publishers to pay for linking to news content, passed its first major parliamentary hurdle this week. Google responded by negotiating a reported $30m deal with Australia’s largest locally owned media company. Facebook pulled the plug.

But Facebook’s snap ban did not just affect Australia’s news publishers.

On Twitter, which has so far escaped the reach of Australia’s proposed media code by dint of never making any money, the screenshots began to roll in.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology, which uses its Facebook page to deliver climate updates and severe weather warnings, was blocked. So too was the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services, which earlier this month was issuing evacuation warnings for a bushfire that destroyed 86 homes in the Perth hills. In a statement, DFES said it had contacted Facebook “and they have assured us they will restore the page as a priority”.

State health departments, where daily coronavirus figures and information about potential exposure sites are listed, were deleted, as was the official page for the governments of the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Tasmania.

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So too was St Vincent’s Health, a hospital in Melbourne that is soon to begin distributing the first coronavirus vaccines in Australia. On Twitter, the organisation said it was “extremely concerning” to find its page had been blocked “during a pandemic and on the eve of a crucial Covid vaccine distribution”.

1800 Respect, a family violence service, was blocked, as were homelessness services, other crisis centres and women’s shelters. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander media pages servicing small, often remote communities were gone.

The leader of the opposition in Western Australia, Zak Kirkup, had his page blocked, three weeks out from the state election, but the premier’s page remained intact. On Twitter, the only place left to be, Kirkup joked: “Alright time to reactivate my MySpace account.”

Facebook even blocked its own page.

The sudden national blackout of legitimate information sources appeared to some to expose the hollowness of Facebook’s prior claims that it was unable to suppress hate speech or pages spreading dangerous misinformation, and its failure to respond to reports of abuse.

With sufficient motivation, like the prospect of having to pay to link to news content, the social media giant was able to act swiftly, they said.

At 8am, the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, tweeted that he’d had a “constructive discussion with Mark Zuckerberg” about the media code, and said the two parties had agreed “to try to find a pathway forward”.

The conversation went for half an hour. The pair also spoke on the weekend, but Frydenberg said he was not warned the ban was coming.

At 11am, Facebook released a non-apology, saying that government pages should not be impacted by its decision to ban news but also that the broad definition of news in the legislation was to blame. It did not explain why, despite having threatened this action for weeks, it didn’t check that the filter was working as intended first.

“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,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.”

This prompted an escalation of the government’s language. “Facebook was wrong,” Frydenberg told reporters at a midday press conference.

“Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” he said.

Frydenberg said the decision to block government pages was “completely unrelated to the media code”, which still has to be debated in the Senate before it becomes law. But he said the government was committed to the reforms, and said Facebook’s actions “confirm for all Australians [the] immense market power of these media digital giants”.

It is not clear whether Facebook, which has 2.89bn monthly active users and a net worth of US$780bn, is concerned about any reputational damage that may arise from blocking potentially lifesaving information for 11.23 million Australians.

Frydenberg’s press conference was livestreamed on Facebook, but the feed stopped working several minutes in.

Meanwhile, the Australian communications minister, Paul Fletcher, was fielding calls from the admin of the Facebook group North Shore Mums, which was also caught up in the ban.

It did not take Australians long to discover a workaround. News links via third-party aggregators still worked, as did links to tweets containing links to news articles. Links to news articles could also be shared in Facebook messenger, including via chatbots.

By 1pm, the Bureau of Meteorology, 1800 Respect, and a number of other government and community pages were back online. News sites were not.





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