Facebook news goes dark in Australia as content spat escalates

SYDNEY (CNA) – Australians woke to empty news feeds on their Facebook pages yesterday after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.

The move was swiftly criticised by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates, particularly as it became clear that official health pages, emergency safety warnings and welfare networks had all been scrubbed from the site along with news.

“Facebook was wrong, Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a televised news conference.

Frydenberg said Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg gave no warning of the news shutdown when the pair spoke over the weekend about looming laws that will force both Facebook and search engine giant Google to pay local publishers for content.

The two men had a subsequent conversation yesterday which was “constructive”, Frydenberg said, adding they discussed what he called “differing interpretations” about how the new Media Bargaining Code would work.

Facebook said it would reject Australia’s regulatory move to force it to share revenue with media outlets, and restrict news content sharing instead. PHOTO: AFP

Facebook’s drastic move represents a split from Alphabet-owned Google after they initially joined together to campaign against the laws. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google has instead sealed preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was the latest to announce a deal in which it will receive “significant payments” from Google in return for providing content for the search engine’s News Showcase account.

Google declined to comment on the Facebook decision yesterday.

The Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree on a price.

Facebook said in its statement that the law, which is expected to be passed by parliament within days, “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of attempting to comply or banning news content.