US State Department Spokesman Deflects Questions About Facebook News Ban in Australia

February 21, 2021 Updated: February 21, 2021

The U.S. government is not likely to be assisting Australia in its negotiations with Facebook after the U.S. tech giant moved to cut off Australians from sharing or accessing news on its platform last week, according to U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price.

At a press briefing on Feb. 19, Price deflected questions about whether the United States would join in with other world leaders to support or take a position on Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code that will see tech giants Facebook and Google pay news publishers for content.

Price noted that the situation involved business negotiations between multiple private companies and the Australian government.

“Any questions on the status and implications of private business decisions should be directed towards those companies,” Price told reporters. “As I think you know, the United States Government, we do regularly engage in support of U.S. companies, but we don’t generally share the specifics of that engagement.”

While Price was vague about where the United States stands between supporting its greatest ally and one of its most successful private enterprises, other world leaders have voiced their support for Australia, including in Canada and the United Kingdom.

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Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault holds a press conference in Ottawa, Canada, on Nov. 3, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada is drafting similar legislation to Australia’s code, and its heritage minister, Steven Guilbeault, said Facebook’s actions would not deter them.

“Canada is at the forefront of this battle … we are really among the first group of countries around the world that are doing this,” Guilbeault said. “I suspect that soon we will have 5, 10, 15 countries adopting similar rules … is Facebook going to cut ties with Germany, with France?”

The head of the British parliamentary committee overseeing the media industry said Facebook was “bullying” Australia.

“I think it’s staggeringly irresponsible at a time when we are facing a plethora of fake news and disinformation in relation to the COVID vaccine,” he said. “This is not just about Australia. This is Facebook putting a marker down, saying to the world that ‘if you do wish to limit our powers … we can remove what is for many people a utility.’”

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the House of Representatives on February 18, 2021, in Canberra, Australia. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Feb. 20 that his government was pleased it had received “strong international support” from world leaders for the country’s stance on Facebook, and noted that Facebook had “tentatively friended us again.”

“In every way, Australia has led the way when it comes to this issue, as we have on other occasions,” Morrison declared. “When it comes to the tax treatment of goods that Amazon were selling in Australia, or the display of violent extremist material on social media platforms, we led that charge together with New Zealand, particularly Australia, through the G20. And so we’re no strangers to taking the lead on this.”

Facebook has returned to the Australian government’s mediation process after one of its executives apologised to Australia for the blackout.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, Simon Milner, Facebook vice president of public policy in the Asia-Pacific, said, “This is a really hard thing to do. We’ve never done it before. We are sorry for the mistakes we made in some of the implementation.”

Milner noted that instead of using human reviewers of content, Facebook had chosen to utilise an artificial intelligence program to identify what was news in Australia.

“There’s still some pages that we’re looking at, but some of it’s really difficult in that the law isn’t clear and therefore there may be some pages that were clearly not news but actually under the law they might be,” Milner added. “That’s one of the challenges for us. We’re sorry for the mistakes that we made on that front.”