One morning, the whole Australia woke up and instead of the usual Facebook news feed, saw empty media pages without videos and links to articles. The social network simply "turned off" news for an entire continent. And everything happened too quickly by the standards of previous reactions to requests to remove content.
The news blackout is a consequence of a bill that would oblige IT companies like Google and Facebook to pay Australian media money for their content. If Google was still able to agree, then the social network simply refused to pay tax and "showed power." The pages of government agencies reporting on health care, weather and koalas also got hit.
Let's talk in more detail about the bill that caused such a sharp reaction from Facebook, as well as the arguments of the state and the companies themselves.
"Removed faster than the Christchurch video"
The shutdown started at 5:30 am. Facebook blocked publications from news agencies, TV channels and newspapers - as a result, all Australian media, as well as messages from users sharing Australian news, were removed. The producers of the morning news were the first to notice the blocking. ABC home page stopped working, Guardian Australia, The Age were also unavailable.
Facebook users flocked to Twitter and began to complain about the ban and post screenshots there. The hashtag #facebooknewsban has appeared.
Even the page of Queensland Health, the world's largest healthcare provider, was blocked. This happened just before the start of a mass vaccination campaign against coronavirus in Australia, information about which was supposed to be posted there.
The same has happened with St Vincent's Health Hospital in Melbourne, which will soon begin distributing the first vaccines. The organization said it was extremely concerned that its page was blocked "during the pandemic and on the eve of the important distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine."
Three weeks before the elections, the page of opposition leader in Western Australia was blocked, but the page of the Prime Minister remained untouched. Facebook even blocked its own page.
The sudden closure of legitimate sources of information across the country seemed like a paradox to some social media users. After all, Facebook previously stated that it was unable to suppress hate speech or pages that spread misinformation. But the prospect of paying for news links has motivated the social media giant to act quickly.
Following the shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Facebook said it was too difficult to completely remove conspiracy theories and extremist content that help radicalize users. However, judging by the quick deletion of the news, it seems that it was not too difficult.
The high-profile bill has already passed the lower house of parliament and is expected to pass the upper one soon.
The plan offers support for the media amid the market monopoly of Google and Facebook, as well as protection for quality journalism. Companies want to oblige to pay to media for links on Google and Facebook.
If companies cannot reach a payment deal on their own, they will be bound by law, and the amount will be determined by the institution of arbitrators. They also propose to introduce fines for violating the terms of partnership - up to 10% of the platform's annual revenue for each.
Media claims their content helps Google and Facebook make money by offering reliable, verified information that users are looking for. During the pandemic, some of the old media were closed, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp stopped printing 60 local publications.
The tech giants argue that the internet should remain free and that publishers themselves benefit from the conversions to their sites.
The law itself, before the blocking case, was criticized even by those who were in favor of funding the media. It was called "the government's agreement with Murdoch," calling for a different way of drafting the law.
Google said it could turn off searches in Australia altogether. But it has since signed multi-million dollar annual contracts with major media companies (including Nine, which owns The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald) to be spent on journalism. Google has already struck deals with The Saturday Paper and Australian Community Media, which owns The Canberra Times and several regional media outlets.
What Facebook said
Facebook claims that publishers actively publish content as they see fit and get more out of it than the company. And getting news is only part of what people do on the platform.
The company was in talks with publishers, but they were stumped over fears of fines.
Facebook Australia's Managing Director William Easton said the company is wary of setting a costly precedent for other countries.
"The law sets a precedent for the government to decide who enters into these content agreements and, ultimately, how much will be paid to the party that already benefits from the free service," Easton said.
The proposed law is the first of its kind.
But other countries have already tried to pressure Google, Facebook and other internet companies to pay news agencies. In France, Google has had to negotiate with publishers after a court last year upheld a ruling that payment agreements were guided by the 2019 EU copyright directive. The decision assumes that other countries in the 27-country block will apply the same requirements. Google has made deals with Le Monde, l'Obs.
Facebook launched the Facebook News tab in the UK following deals with Sky News, Financial Times and The Guardian.
Google shut down its news website in Spain after a 2014 law required it to pay.
The reaction of the authorities
The Australian government has sharply criticized the move, saying it demonstrated "the enormous market power of these digital giants." But at the same time, the law enjoys cross-party support and will be discussed again in parliament.
“We will legislate this code. We want digital giants to pay traditional news media to create original journalistic content,” said Treasurer Josh Friedenberg.
He said he also had a "constructive discussion" with Mark Zuckerberg. He added that the blocking damaged Facebook's reputation.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the authorities were not afraid of such a step.
"Facebook's move to remove Australia from friends, shut down essential health information services and emergency services was as arrogant as it was frustrating. I am in constant contact with leaders in other countries on these issues," Morrison said.
The ban caused a backlash from many Australians due to the sudden loss of access to news.
The hashtag #deletefacebook has become popular again. Users are encouraged to remove apps or accounts.
Some have expressed concern about the disinformation that is now being freely circulated.
Someone more criticized the law which makes you pay tax for publishing links.
"One of the benefits of losing Facebook to Australians is that they can experience what it is like to be president of the United States," says Byron Kaye.