Facebook has endangered public safety by blocking news on the platform in Australia during the covid-19 pandemic, according to Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg a high-ranking official in the country’s ruling Liberal Party.
Frydenberg appeared on the local TV program “Today,” on Friday morning, Australia time, and insisted the government was not going to tolerate Facebook’s “unnecessary” and “wrong” attempts to bully Australia into submission.
“He endangered public safety,” Frydenberg said of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “In the middle of a pandemic, people weren’t able to get access to information about the vaccines.”
Facebook started blocking all news content for Australian users on Thursday in retaliation for the government’s plan to implement a new law that would force large tech companies to pay news publishers for linking to their content. Google previously threatened to block all searches in Australia over the law but has since signed agreements with several large Australian publishers.
The hosts of the “Today” show, which airs on Nine News in Australia, were fixated on defending the country’s honor against Facebook, with co-host Karl Stefanovic even calling it “disgusting” that Facebook would block news.
“What he did yesterday... he treated us like chumps,” Stefanovic told Frydenberg. “And we need to be respected more than that. It’s disgusting.”
Dozens, and possibly hundreds, of Facebook accounts were blocked in Australia on Thursday, including government accounts and public service organizations that most people wouldn’t consider traditional news publishers. The heavy-handed approach had plenty of collateral damage. Facebook even briefly blocked its own page in Australia, as Gizmodo reported yesterday.
“I think subtlety’s not their schtick,” Frydenberg told Nine News. “It was pretty bad what we saw yesterday.”
Australia has done relatively well during the covid-19 crisis, with just 28,900 cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began last year, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker. But Australia lags behind other wealthy countries in rolling out vaccines and Frydenberg’s government has been blamed for not coordinating sufficient planning on the national level.
Several public health organizations were caught up in the Facebook news block on Thursday, including Western Sydney Health, South Australia Health, and the Sydney Local Health District. All three Facebook pages had been restored by Friday.
“We’re not backing down. No, we’re not backing down. We’re implementing this Code,” Frydenberg said. “We want these digital giants to pay for original content. That’s what Google is doing and we welcome the deals they have struck. With respect to Facebook, I’ll hear them out, and see what [Mark Zuckerberg] says.”
Australia has a population of just 26 million, a little smaller than the state of Texas, so it doesn’t have the geopolitical weight to throw around and institute antitrust measures like the U.S. or European Union. Instead, Australia is using the tools it has in its toolbox in an attempt to tame big tech companies through local laws. And companies like Facebook and Google are terrified that Australia’s rules could become a model for other relatively small countries.
Frydenberg’s live interview with Nine News aired around 8:15 a.m. local time on the east coast of Australia (4:15 p.m. Thursday, ET), seemingly before he spoke with Mark Zuckerberg later in the morning, but details from that phone call have not been released. Frydenberg is reportedly scheduled to talk with Zuckerberg again over the weekend.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Friday that the government was not going to back down from this fight and noted he believes Australians are with him on this battle against Silicon Valley’s largest players.
“This is Australia. You want to do business here, you work according to our rules, and that’s a reasonable proposition,” Morrison said.
Morrison spoke with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently in an effort to shore up support from other smaller countries in their push against Facebook, according to Australia’s ABC News. And Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault condemned Facebook’s actions in Australia on Thursday saying it was “highly irresponsible” and that Facebook “compromises the safety of many Australian people,” according to Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.
Prime Minister Morrison insisted that he’s not trying to be unreasonable, but that any overreaction by Facebook would likely be seen as foolish in Australia.
“We’re happy to listen to them on the technical issues of this, just like we listened to Google and came to a sensible arrangement,” Morrison told reporters on Friday.
“But the idea of shutting down the sort of sites they did yesterday as some sort of threat—well, I know how Australians react to that. And I thought that was not a good move on their part,” Morrison said with a chuckle.