Facebook applies overly broad content block in flex against Australia’s planned news reuse law

Outrage fast-followed Facebook’s announcement yesterday that it was making good on its threat to block Australian users’ ability to share news on its platform.

The tech giant’s intentionally broad-brush — call it antisocial — implementation of content restrictions took down a swathe of non-news publishers’ Facebook pages, as well as silencing news outlets’, illustrating its planned dodge of the (future) law.

Facebook took the step to censor a bunch of pages as parliamentarians in Australia are debating a legislative proposal to force Facebook (and Google) to pay publishers for linking to their news content. In recent years the media industry in the country has successfully lobbied for a law to extract payment from the tech giants for monetizing news content when it’s reshared on their platforms — though the legislation is still being drafted.

Last month Google also threatened to close its search engine in Australia if the law isn’t amended. But it’s Facebook that screwed its courage to the sticking place and flipped the chaos switch first.

Last night internet users in Australia took to Twitter to report local scores of Facebook pages being wiped clean of content — including hospitals, universities, unions, government departments and the bureau of meteorology, to name a few.

In the wake of Facebook’s unilateral censorship of all sorts of Facebook pages, parliamentarians in the country accused the tech giant of “an assault on a sovereign nation”.

The prime minister of Australia also said today that his government “would not be intimidated”.

Reached for comment, Facebook confirmed it has applied an intentionally broad definition of news to restrict — saying it has done so to reflect the lack of clear guidance in the law “as drafted”.

So it looks like the collateral damage of Facebook silencing scores of public information pages is at least partly a PR tactic to illustrate potential “consequences” of lawmakers forcing it to pay to display certain types of content — i.e. to “encourage” a rethink while there’s still time.

The tech giant did also say it would reverse pages that are “inadvertently impacted”.

But it did not indicate whether it would be doing the leg work of checking its own homework there, or whether silenced pages must (somehow) petition it to be reinstated.

“The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content. As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted. However, we will reverse any Pages that are inadvertently impacted,” a Facebook company spokesperson said in the statement.

It’s also not clear how many non-news pages have been affected by Facebook’s self-imposed content restrictions.

If the tech giant was hoping to kick off a wider debate about the merits of Australia’s (controversial) plan to make tech pay for news (including in its current guise, for links to news — not just snippets of content, as under the EU’s recent copyright reform expansion of neighbouring rights for news) — Facebook has certainly succeeded in grabbing global eyeballs by blocking regional access to vast swathes of useful, factual information.

However, Facebook’s blunt action has also attracted criticism that it’s putting business interests before human rights — given it’s shuttering users’ ability to find what might be vital information, such as from hospitals and government departments, in the middle of a pandemic. (Albeit, being accused of ignoring human rights is hardly a new look for Facebook.)

The Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff’s academic critique of surveillance capitalism — including that it engages in propagating “epistemic chaos” for profit — has perhaps never felt quite so on the nose. (“We turned to Facebook in search of information. Instead we found lethal strategies of epistemic chaos for profit,” she wrote only last month.)

Facebook’s intentional over-flex has also underscored the vast power of its social monopoly — which will likely only strengthen calls for policymakers and antitrust regulators everywhere to grasp the nettle and rein in big tech. So its local lobbying effort may backfire on the global stage if it further sours public opinion against the scandal-hit company.

Facebook’s rush to censor may even encourage a proportion of its users to remember/discover that there’s a whole open internet outside its walled garden — where they can freely access public information without having to log into Facebook’s ad-targeting platform (and be stripped of their privacy) first.

As others have noted, it’s also interesting to note how quickly Facebook can pull the content moderation trigger when it believes its bottom line is threatened. And a law to extract payment for sharing news content presents a clear threat.

Compare and contrast Facebook’s rush to silence information pages in Australia with its laid back approach to tackling outrage-inducing hate speech or violent conspiracy nonsense and it’s hard not to conclude that content moderation on (and by) Facebook is always viewed through the prism of Facebook’s global revenue growth goals. (Much like how the tech giant can here be seen in a court filing chainlinking revenue to its self-reported ad metric tools.)

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