Meta Platforms, Inc. (FB) has been accused by whistleblowers of deliberately taking down, in February 2021, the Facebook pages of government agencies, hospitals, emergency services, and charities in Australia just as that nation was launching COVID-19 vaccinations. The alleged objective was to block or at least water down pending legislation that would be the first in the world to compel online platforms to pay for content copied from news organizations.
Facebook has called its action "inadvertent." Meanwhile, whistleblowers have presented U.S. and Australian authorities with documents and testimony indicating that Facebook intentionally took down those pages as a tactic to influence that legislation, despite the obvious dangers to public health and safety.
- Facebook took down the pages of government agencies, hospitals, emergency services, and charities in February 2021 amid the COVID-19 crisis.
- At the time, Australia's parliament was debating a bill that would force online platforms like Facebook to pay for news content.
- The final bill was amended to Facebook's liking, but similar legislation is pending in Canada and the U.K., while also being suggested in the U.S.
- Facebook calls its action "inadvertent," but internal documents suggest otherwise.
What Facebook Allegedly Did
Facebook claimed that it was only targeting news outlets, but the documents and people familiar with the matter say that it intentionally designed an algorithm that would take down the pages of much more than publishers. Moreover, Facebook did not give advance warning to affected pages that they would be blocked, and the company did not provide a system for them to appeal once they were.
The documents also reveal that multiple Facebook employees tried to warn about the impact and offer solutions, but they got minimal or delayed responses from the team leaders. Instead, Facebook management allegedly viewed this pre-emptive strike against the media law as a strategic masterstroke.
Facebook: 'We Landed Exactly Where We Wanted To'
After five days of disorder in the country, the Australian Parliament passed an amended media bill in February 2021 that was more to Facebook's liking. In the year after its passage, the most onerous aspects of the bill have not been applied to Facebook or its parent, Meta Platforms.
"We landed exactly where we wanted to—and that was only because this team was genius enough to pull it off in zero time," reads an e-mail sent from Campbell Brown, Facebook's head of partnerships, to her team minutes after the Australian Senate passed the revised bill. She had pressed for Facebook's aggressive stance.
An e-mail from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: "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."
Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg added, also via e-mail: "The thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved sets a new high-standard."
Facebook Claims 'A Technical Error'
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone denied that the removal of the pages was a negotiating tactic. He said, instead, that the proposed law was at fault for not defining what constitutes news,
Stone stated: "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. 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."
Potential Global Impact
Legislation similar to that in Australia is being introduced around the world, and Facebook's tactics there may give a hint about how it may respond elsewhere. In April 2022, Canada introduced legislation modeled on Australia's that would force Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL, GOOG) Google and Facebook to enter into arbitration with publishers regarding payment, a process that tends to favor publishers. Similar legislation also is being floated in the U.S. Congress.
Also, a new Digital Markets Unit (DMU) is being created by the U.K. government to clamp down on "predatory practices" of some big tech firms, with the power to levy massive fines. Among other matters, the DMU wants news publishers to be paid fairly for their content, and the unit will have the power to resolve conflicts.
The Facebook documents have been submitted as part of whistleblower complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, or ACCC. The documents have also been shared with members of the U.S. Congress.