‘An assault on Australia and freedom’: Facebook lashed

Health Minister Greg Hunt has slammed Facebook for its bombshell ban at a critical time, labelling the move an “abuse of their power”.

Facebook’s news ban is an “assault” on the Australia and on people’s freedom, Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

Mr Hunt slammed the social media giant’s bombshell move — which has not only hit media outlets but also charities and government organisations — during question time saying it was an “abuse” of power.

He said it came at a time when it was critical to share health and vaccination information.

“Facebook has taken steps, which are unprecedented and reprehensible. Unacceptable in a democracy such as this and an abuse of their power,” Mr Hunt said.

He said The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, MS Australia, the Danilla Debilba Indigenous Health Service and the Kids Cancer Project, among others, had all been hit.

“This is outrageous and unacceptable. We expect that Facebook will fix these actions immediately and never repeat them again,” he said.

“This is an assault on a sovereign nation. It is an assault on people’s freedom and, in particular, it is an utter abuse of big technologies market power and control over technology.”

He said “apparently” Facebook’s original mission was to “bring the world closer together and allow people to help share and express what matters to them”.

He added: “perhaps it is time to put people over profit.”

‘PUBLIC SAFETY’: FACEBOOK NEWS BAN ‘UNNECESSARY’

The Australian Government was given no notice that Facebook would ban news, charities and government organisations on its social network even though founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on the same morning the company started deleting information for Australians.

Mr Frydenberg, who called the bans “wrong” said talks with Mr Zuckerberg today and over the weekend were “constructive” and Australia would not back down from introducing the news code passed by in the House of Representatives last night.

“Facebook is in no doubt that we’re committed to the code but also we would like to see them here in Australia,” he said. “But their actions today were unnecessary and wrong.”

Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Facebook’s removal of news content and government information had gone far beyond what it had originally threatened and had become a “public safety issue”.

He said he had spoken to Facebook executives about restoring access to some government pages today, but removing fact-checked, verified news stories from the social network could also be damaging for the Australian public and the company’s reputation.

“What they’re effectively saying to Australians is, ‘You will not find content on our platform which comes from an organisation which employs professional journalists, which has editorial policies, which has fact-checking processes’,” he said.

“They’re effectively saying, ‘You will not find information that meets those standards of accuracy on our site.’ That seems a very surprising position and one that is unlikely to be in the long-term interest of their brand.”

ZUCKERBERG A ‘DICTATOR: AUSTRALIA BAN SLAMMED

The managing editor of Rolling Stone in Australia and music blog sites The Brag, Tone Deaf and Industry Observer has labelled Mark Zuckerberg a “dictator” whose Facebook news ban will have a flow-on effect on musicians.

Poppy Reid shared an incendiary editorial about the impact of Facebook’s dummy spit on the global artistic community.

“The Mark Zuckerberg dictatorship is in full effect. No longer is he subtly limiting what you see via algorithms, now he has completely blocked Australians from seeing news. This is all out dictatorship,” Redi wrote.

“There’s no doubt that (we) will feel some effect here, however this is a bigger kick in the teeth is for Australian artists and promoters.

“Artists and promoters rely on us to tell their stories and market their tours, right now, a big way we share data and results with artists and promoters is via Facebook.

“Now, Facebook has robbed artists of being able to distribute the stories about them, and market that content to their fans.”

The news ban also indiscriminately stripped all of the heartwarming performances – almost 200 of them – by Jimmy Barnes and his wife Jane from their feed.

The pair began entertaining their legion of fans back in March last year as lockdown began, performing a song almost nightly.

The legendary rocker eventually called the sessions the Jane Barnes Band as his wife became hugely popular online for her own musical skills on guitar and piano.

Australia’s peak real estate body also criticised the move, with a number of “major real estate portals, trade media and real estate member organisations” affected by the ban.

“REIA is currently assessing the situation and the impact on the industry as a whole as Facebook has been an important channel to connect with Australian’s looking to buy and rent property,” Real Estate Institute of Australia president Adrian Kelly said.

Mr Kelly said despite Facebook’s crackdown, he was confident real estate marketing would continue to reach customers.

“COVID has proven that estate agents are very quick to adapt to new technologies and that will be the case in the current environment,” he said.

The Australian Academy of Science, Science and Technology Australia, and the Australian Science Media Centre came out against the ban in a joint statement.

Science & Technology Australia CEO Misha Schubert said the move would deny the public access to important scientific and health information.

“For Facebook to block access to the feeds of trusted science and health organisations in Australia during a pandemic and bushfire season is irresponsible and dangerous,” Ms Schubert said.

“At a time when the company is taking steps to tackle misinformation on its platform, it’s concerning it has chosen to silence some of this nation’s leading scientific voices.”

The social media giant was earlier blasted for banning emergency services pages, after blocking media organisations and users from sharing – and viewing – news.

Major news sites including News Corp’s stable of mastheads, along with Facebook’s own page, and even satirical sites Betoota Advocate and The Onion have all had their Facebook pages wiped, with the message “no posts yet”, after the tech giant announced the move early today.

The Bureau of Meteorology’s page was also restricted on Thursday morning but was later restored.

It came as Facebook is refusing to bend to a regulatory push that would force it to share revenue with mass media outlets.

Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnson said Facebook’s decision to block posts from essential services’ sites put lives at risk.

“Amber alerts and missing people posts have been proven to save lives. There is a social responsibility for these massive companies – it’s not just about profit,” she said.

“I am very surprised by the decision. It is ridiculous. Anything posted by the police is about community safety and the safety of the public. This is irresponsible and they need to stop thinking about money.”

In a statement, Facebook said government pages should not have been impacted and it would work to rectify the issue.

“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,” the statement read.

“However, we will reverse any Pages that are inadvertently impacted.”

ZUCKERBERG CALL

Meantime, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg revealed he had a “constructive discussion” with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, after the social network announced it would block Australian news content.

“This morning, I had a constructive discussion with Mark Zuckerberg from #Facebook,” Mr Frydenberg tweeted.

“He raised a few remaining issues with the Government’s news media bargaining code and we agreed to continue our conversation to try to find a pathway forward.”

Australia is poised to adopt legislation that would force digital companies to pay for news content, something that would create a global precedent and, according to Facebook and Google, impact the way the internet works.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” said Facebook’s manager for Australia and New Zealand, William Easton.

“It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

But the federal government is standing firm against the tech juggernaut, with Communications Minister Paul Fletcher saying while the move was a concern he expects Facebook and Google will stay in Australia.

“We’ve had continuing discussions with Facebook. They have chosen to make this announcement. There are already questions about the credibility of the information and sources on the Facebook platform,” he told radio station 2GB.

“They’re basically saying to Australians: ‘If you’re looking for reliable news, Facebook is not the place to look for it.’

“It costs money to employ journalists who have proper fact-checking purposes and provide reliable information and that is a key policy issue the Australian government is concerned about. “What has been announced by Facebook this morning raises very serious questions, including the credibility of information on Facebook.”

Facebook’s move contrasted with Google, which in recent days has brokered deals with media groups (including a deal reached with News Corporation, which was announced today), in response to the regulatory push.

Mr Easton said that Facebook’s platforms “have fundamentally different relationships with news”.

“Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue,” he said, claiming the arrangement worked in publishers’ favour.

“Last year Facebook generated approximately 5.1 billion free referrals to Australian publishers worth an estimated AU$407 million,” he said.

Earlier this week, Australian officials said the two US tech giants were close to deals with major Australian media to pay for news to resolve a standoff being closely watched around the world.

The companies had threatened to partially withdraw services from the country if the rules become law, sparking a war of words with Canberra.

Mr Easton said Facebook has argued to Australian officials that “the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favour of the publishers,” and generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for the media organisations.

“We’ve long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations,” Mr Easton said.

“Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for.”

‘MISINFORMATION’

Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said Facebook’s bold move showed it was willing to allow “misinformation to fill the void” left by verified facts and news, even during a health crisis.

“Facebook blocking news in the middle of a pandemic, when accurate information is a key plank of the public health response, really tells you all you need to know about how much (founder Mark) Zuckerberg cares about Australian society and cohesion,” Mr Cooper said.

“Throughout the News Media Bargaining Code process big tech has dismissed ‘news’ as nothing more than a line item on a balance sheet.”

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who also sat on the committee investigating the news media bargaining code, said Facebook’s ban on news in Australia showed it was not afraid to demonstrate its monopoly power in social media.

“Facebook has proved this morning they have become far too big, reinforcing the need to regulate this corporate bully,” she said.

“Instead of coming to the negotiating table in good faith and to pay the journalists that create their content, they pulled a major component of their service.”

Labor Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers called the situation a “mess” and said it would have “consequences for people who are trying to get their news — health news — during a pandemic”.


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