Meta Deliberately Shut Down Major Facebook Accounts to Strong-Arm Australian Government

Meta Deliberately Shut Down Major Facebook Accounts to Strong-Arm Australian Government
Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during a panel talk at the 2020 Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 15, 2020. (Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
Daniel Y. Teng
5/6/2022
Updated:
5/6/2022

Meta’s sweeping news ban across Australia in early 2021, which saw the Facebook pages of non-profits and government entities also shut down, was a deliberate ploy by the tech giant’s top brass to gain leverage during heated negotiations over an impending media payment law.

The U.S.-based Whistleblower Aid revealed on May 5 that it had filed disclosures with the U.S. Department of Justice and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on behalf of former Facebook employees.

A press statement said the social media firm had deliberately “over blocked” critical Australian Facebook pages belonging to emergency departments and even weather bureaus for five days between Feb. 17 to Feb. 22, 2021.

The move was an attempt to secure favourable amendments to the impending News Media Bargaining Code, which would have compelled Facebook (and Google) to enter discussions with local media outlets to negotiate payment rates for content.

The tech giant had warned months earlier that it could be compelled to simply remove news sites in response to the law; however, when the ban was actioned, it happened with no prior notification and went over and above blocking news sites.

Facebook soon after said it would reverse the ban, but did not apologize or claim 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.”

In this photo illustration reports on Facebook's news ban on Australian and International content on Feb. 18, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
In this photo illustration reports on Facebook's news ban on Australian and International content on Feb. 18, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Some organisations hit by the ban included 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.

Further, Facebook has been accused of sidelining standard practice—which could have prevented the blocking of non-news-related pages—to trigger a “full rollout” of the ban within hours.

“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 Wall Street Journal report, the tech giant did not use an established database of news publishers and instead created a new “algorithmic news classifier” that would block any page if over 60 percent of the content posted on it was news.

The leadership team, including founder Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and Campbell Brown, head of news partnerships, sent congratulatory messages to staff after the news ban.

“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.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta, speaks during a conference in Germany on Jan. 20, 2019. (Lino Mirgeler/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta, speaks during a conference in Germany on Jan. 20, 2019. (Lino Mirgeler/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

“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.

However, Meta has refuted the claims in a statement 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.”

Rob Nicholls, associate professor in competition law at the University of New South Wales, at the time of the ban, said it was “inconceivable” one of the largest companies in the world could make such a significant mistake.

“Facebook hires some of the brightest and best in terms of algorithm design and software engineering,” he told The Epoch Times 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.”
A pedestrian walks in front of the new 'Meta' logo in front of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2021. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks in front of the new 'Meta' logo in front of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2021. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“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.

Nicholl’s also suspected Facebook’s Zuckerberg played a major part 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 eventually passed into law with some amendments. However, the tech giants, Google and Facebook, have since entered into multi-million payment deals with several major media outlets in the country without the need for the payment law—setting a precedent for other nations to follow.

Daniel Y. Teng is based in Brisbane, Australia. He focuses on national affairs including federal politics, COVID-19 response, and Australia-China relations. Got a tip? Contact him at [email protected].
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