The Australian treasurer says Facebook was wrong to block news content

Various news pages on Facebook on February 18, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia.

Robert Cianflone ​​| Getty Images News | Getty Images

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said it was “wrong” and “unnecessary” for Facebook to block Australian users from all news content – including that from the government – on its platform.

“Facebook was wrong. Facebook’s actions were unnecessary. They were persistent and will damage its reputation here in Australia,” said Frydenberg on Thursday.

“Your decision to block Australians’ access to government pages – be it for pandemic support, mental health, emergency services or the Bureau of Meteorology – had nothing to do with the media code, which has not yet been passed by the Senate” he said said.

The Australian Parliament is expected to pass a new media law that will require online platforms like Google and Facebook to pay news outlets to display and link their content.

Facebook’s decision was contrary to Google’s. The latter said on Wednesday that it had reached a revenue sharing agreement with the Australian media conglomerate News Corp, which owns media such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.

In addition to the news agency-operated sites, several government-backed Australian accounts were deleted from Facebook on Thursday morning. Affected government pages include those providing updates on the Covid Pandemic and Bushfire threats.

Human rights activists also criticized Facebook’s move. Elaine Pearson, Australian director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement posted on Twitter that the social media giant is restricting vital information such as Covid-19 updates.

“Facebook severely restricts the flow of information to Australians,” she said.

“This is an alarming and dangerous turn. It is incomprehensible to block access to vital information for an entire country in the middle of the night,” she added.

Facebook responded to CNBC’s request for comment that government websites should not be affected by its latest move in Australia.

“The measures we are taking are aimed at preventing publishers and people in Australia from sharing or displaying Australian and international news content,” a spokesman said in a statement sent via email.

“Since the law does not provide clear guidelines for defining news content, we have made a broad definition to respect the law as it stands. However, we will cancel any pages that are accidentally affected,” the statement said.

Many of these sites were restored in the afternoon.

Facebook’s “bad” PR

According to Tama Leaver, professor at Curtin University’s School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, Facebook’s “overreach” early Thursday, which restricted Australians from accessing non-news sites, was a “bad” public relations move.

“I think Facebook lost the PR battle by imposing a ban that was simply too broad,” Leaver told CNBC’s Street Signs Asia on Thursday.

“If Facebook had hoped this would remind Australians of the importance of Facebook, they will really be a reminder that Facebook does things without considering the consequences for its users,” he added.

Even so, the professor said the social media company has raised some legitimate concerns about the proposed media law in Australia.

“Facebook puts a lot of eyeballs on Australian news content, so it has a valid claim that it actually does more work for Australian news producers than it should pay for,” Leaver said.

So there should be more debate about the value that Facebook and Australian news producers bring to each other, Leaver added. He predicted that at some point Facebook would follow in Google’s footsteps to do deals with news companies.

– – CNBC’s Saheli Roy Choudhury contributed to this report.

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