On February 17, 2021, Facebook banned users of the social media platform from reading or sharing news articles. The ban was in response to media bargaining laws proposed in the Australian government at the time: when the ban came into effect, the proposed laws already passed through the House of Representatives, according to a February 18 article published in The Sydney Morning Herald last year. The proposed laws aimed to “require social media companies to pay media outlets for using their content.”
The ban targeted media outlets and made “content on Facebook pages from news websites” like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, and ABC “unavailable to users,” the Sydney Morning Herald article reports. However, according to an article published by The Guardian at the time, “the block also affected a number of non-news site pages, including some state health departments, the West Australian fire and emergency services page,” pages of unions, and pages of “several charities including support for victims of family violence.”
Now, whistleblower complaints have shed light on the 2021 ban: while Facebook called the banning of pages unrelated to news “inadvertent,” documents from the company as well as complaints from whistleblowers “allege that the social-media giant deliberately created an overly broad and sloppy process to take down pages,” The Wall Street Journal reports. This process led Facebook pages of “the Australian government and health services” to be caught in the ban’s crosshairs, “just as the country was launching Covid vaccinations,” the article states.
The complaint was filed to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) by Whistleblower Aid “on behalf of anonymous former Facebook employees,” according to the organization’s press release. Whistleblowers and documents from Facebook allege that the goal of the ban, which lasted five days, “was to exert maximum negotiating leverage over the Australian Parliament” as it was voting on the aforementioned law “that would require platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay news outlets for content,” The Wall Street Journal reports. The Australian Parliament ended up amending the proposed law “to the degree that, a year after its passage, its most onerous provisions haven’t been applied to Facebook or its parent company, Meta Platforms Inc.”
Facebook documents and “people familiar with the matter” state that although Facebook said implementing the ban was intended to only affect news outlets, “the company deployed an algorithm for deciding what pages to take down that it knew was certain to affect more than publishers.” Additionally, the company did not notify “affected pages in advance they would be blocked or provide a system for them to appeal once they were.”
According to the article, “[t]he documents also show multiple Facebook employees tried to raise alarms about the impact and offer possible solutions, only to receive a minimal or delayed response from the leaders of the team in charge.” The article includes snippets from emails sent by Facebook executives like Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, and head of partnerships Campbell Brown, who were praising the fact that the proposed law was amended and then passed. One email from Sandberg highlighted the “thoughtfulness of the strategy” and “precision of execution.”
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone denied the fact that Facebook strategically took down non-news pages in Australia during the ban. “The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian government Pages from restrictions in an effort to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation,” Stone said. “When we were unable to do so as intended due to a technical error, we apologized and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.”
But according to The Wall Street Journal, “[p]eople familiar with Facebook’s thinking said executives knew its process for classifying news for the removal of pages was so broad that it would likely hit government pages and other social services.” The whistleblowers in the case “said the intent of the project — as a negotiating tactic — was unambiguous to those who worked on it.” An employee who worked on the project and who is one of the whistleblowers represented by Whistleblower Aid said, “It was clear this was not us complying with the law, but a hit on civic institutions and emergency services in Australia.” The organization’s founder, John Tye, alleges in the complaints that there was “a criminal conspiracy to obtain a thing of value, namely favorable regulatory treatment.”
Shortly after the 2021 ban was put into place, Facebook Pages for services like “the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, the Council on Homeless Persons, the Australian Medical Association, the Sydney Local Health District, Suicide Prevention Australia, the Tasmanian Government, SA Health, Fire and Rescue New South Wales, Safe Steps Family Violence Response Center,” and other “cultural, government and health agencies” were affected, according to Whistleblower Aid’s press release.
The Wall Street Journal interviewed Shona Yang, who manages content for Mission Australia, “a charity that provides housing and mental-health services, among other things.” Yang said that the ban impacted the way the organization kept in touch with clients, as Mission Australia uses Facebook messages and private Facebook groups to conduct its work and connect with clients. During the ban, Yang said that Mission Australia had to resort to using other forms of social media to inform clients “how they could stay in touch.” The organization’s “media agency logged the issue with Facebook,” the article states.
According to the article, some Facebook employees “were alarmed by the blocking of pages that shouldn’t have been and flagged the problem through Facebook’s internal tool that is used to track problems and their solutions.” But the article reports that instead of halting the banning process, the company “ramped up the takedown, expanding the use of the algorithm from 50% to 100% of all Australian users over the next several hours.” Stone provided the rationale that Facebook was scared of “legal action” in justifying the “quick rollout,” the article states.
“The whistleblower documents show Facebook did attempt to exclude government and education pages. But people familiar with Facebook’s response said some of these lists malfunctioned at rollout, while other whitelists didn’t cover enough pages to avoid widespread improper blocking,” The Wall Street Journal reports.
According to the article, “Facebook and Australian officials came to a handshake deal to change the proposed law” on February 23. One change was added language “that allowed the Australian Treasurer to weigh private deals between publishers and platforms before ‘designating’ a platform, a label that would require it to take part in the government-sanctioned negotiation process with publishers that could end with binding final-offer arbitration.” The version of the law that passed differed from the previous version, which “automatically subjected platforms like Facebook to the negotiation process, which the platforms considered unworkable and onerous.”
Internal documents show that “Facebook’s first action after the handshake deal was reached was to manually unblock the page of the Australian national government,” the article states.
“Facebook has enormous power over how information is divided,” said Libby Liu, Whistleblower Aid’s CEO, in the press release. “In this case, they 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 to pass friendly legislation. This wasn’t just an example of a corporate actor behaving recklessly; Facebook intentionally put lives at risk to protect its bottom line,” Liu said.