Thursday September 29, 2022

Whistleblowers claim that Facebook’s Australia news ban was a negotiation tactic

Whistleblowers claim that Facebook used a broad definition of news publisher to block all news from being posted on its platform last year in Australia. This was because it knew it would cause collateral damage. The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook placed a news ban last February to protest a proposed Australian law that would have made platform-holders Google and Facebook pay news publishers for sharing their content. The ban was implemented in a chaotic manner and reports arose that it blocked government agencies and non-profits from sharing news publishers’ content.
Non-media pages were blocked by government agencies like Queensland Health and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia. They also included nonprofits like Mission Australia and Hobart Woman’s Shelter. According to the WSJ, the ban was placed during Australia’s fire season and coincided with its COVID-19 vaccination rollout. The WSJ reports that Facebook internal recognized that it had blocked 17,000 pages it shouldn’t have during the ban’s first day.
One whistleblower stated that it was clear that this was not us complying to the law but a hit on Australian civic institutions and emergency services. This was reported by the WSJ. Facebook began removing the pages on February 18, after the House of Representatives had passed an initial version of this bill. However, it was before final votes by the Australian Senate and the House of Representatives.
Facebook admitted publicly at the time that it had adopted a broad definition of news content in light of the fact that there was no clear guidance in the law. The WSJ has more evidence of this from records of internal conversations. “[The proposed Australian law] that we are responding to [is extremely broad], so guidance from policy and legal has been to overinclusive and refine the more we get information,” wrote a product manager in an intern log.
According to leaked documents, the company considered a page a news publisher if more than 60 percent of the content it shared was news. Documents show that the company planned to exclude all education and government domains from the ban.
The list of organizations that had their Facebook pages taken down due to the ban suggests that these safeguards were not working properly. According to the WSJ Facebook also ignored methods that could have targeted news organizations more precisely. The News Page Index is a company’s database of news publishers. It was relying on news publishers to opt in. The complaints claim that it did not use existing whitelisting tools to protect sensitive accounts. It did not notify affected pages and put in place an appeals process before blocking pages.
Facebook officials praised their internal response to the legislation, despite technical difficulties. Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head for partnerships, called the team’s efforts “genius.” Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, said that the strategy was “thoughtful and precise in execution, and that it allowed them to adapt as the world changed.” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, praised the team for their ability to “execute quickly” and adopt a principled approach.
Gina Murphy, a Facebook spokesperson, sent a statement to clarify that she intended to exempt Australian government Pages (in an effort to minimize the negative impact of this harmful and misguided legislation) when Gina Murphy was reached for comment. We apologised and tried to fix the technical error that prevented us from doing so. Any suggestion that the contrary may be made is categorically false and obvious.
Later that month, the law Facebook was protesting passed. It passed with amended language that required the Australian Treasurer to consider private agreements between platforms and publishers before naming a company like Facebook a platform under the law and forcing it into arbitration. The law was passed over a year ago, but neither Facebook nor Google were officially designated platforms.

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