Australia: Facebook accused of deliberately blocking government pages to prevent the passage of a law

In 2021, in the midst of a pandemic, Facebook intentionally blocked certain Australian government, hospital and emergency service pages in order to influence a law that was about to be passed by Canberra, according to information published Thursday, May 5 by the wall street journal.

In February of that year, the Australian government sought to require digital giants to pay for journalistic content appearing on their pages. Google gave in, but Facebook – now renamed Meta – stood up a week before the law was passed, restricting access to articles and videos from numerous Australian and international newspapers in response. Incidentally, the social network also blocks the pages of government bodies providing information on the Covid-19 epidemic and several information pages on natural disasters, a few days before the start of the national vaccination campaign and in full fire and flood season.

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These blockages, qualified at the time as“involuntary” by Facebook, were in fact deliberate, according to the observations of several whistleblowers revealed by the wall street journal. According to their testimonies and internal company documents, which were submitted to the United States Department of Justice and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, these depublications were the result of a deliberate and deliberate strategy implemented by the platform.

Documents provided by whistleblowers show that several Facebook employees tried to escalate the issue

While displaying its desire to block press organs exclusively, Facebook would have used a sorting algorithm which the company knew full well would affect many other publications. The documents provided by the whistleblowers show that several Facebook employees tried to escalate the problem and offer solutions, but the team in charge of depublications would have answered them in a minimalist way or in too long delays.

Following these internal reports, Facebook did not stop its campaign of depublications: on the contrary, the latter were quickly generalized to all Australian users of the platform, while only 50% of them were there. faced in the early hours. An unusual sign of eagerness, according to the wall street journalwhich points out that the company is usually much slower and more cautious when rolling out new features. “It was clear that we were not complying with the law but that we were hitting public institutions and emergency services “, testified a member of the team in charge of deletions.

Facebook officials aware

According to the American daily, the objective was to exert maximum pressure on the Australian Parliament before the vote on the law requiring remuneration for press articles on digital platforms.

Five days after the first depublications, the law passed to the vote, as planned, but its text was amended in a way favorable to Facebook, in accordance with the changes negotiated the day before between the social network and the government. If the initial version of the text had been approved, the company would have been forced to enter into negotiations with all the publishers, under the supervision of the State. However, these amendments have allowed it to deal on a case-by-case basis with the media of its choice: since then, Facebook has negotiated thirteen compensation agreements with press publishers, according to a spokesperson for the company quoted by the wall street journal.

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Immediately after closing its deal with the Australian government, Facebook unblocked access to government pages, according to internal company documents. A change that would have required only a small modification of three lines of computer code, according to the wall street journal. As a further sign of a deliberate strategy, within minutes of Parliament’s vote, Facebook’s Director of Partnerships, Campbell Brown, sent an email to Facebook teams touting their success: “We have reached exactly the place we wanted. » The company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, as well as its number two, Sheryl Sandberg, also welcomed the operation in writing, Mme Sandberg saluting the “precision of execution” of this strategy.

In response to the US newspaper’s investigation, a Facebook spokesperson denies the charges against the company. ” These documents clearly show that we intended to exempt government pages from restrictions in order to minimize the impact of this harmful and misguided legislation. (…) We were unable to achieve this due to a technical error, we apologize for this, and we have been working to resolve this issue. Any claim to the contrary would be categorically and clearly false. »

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