There was a short time in 2021 when Facebook blocked all Australian users from sharing news across their feeds. The drastic change came in response to a proposed law from the country’s authorities that would strongarm the social media company into paying for news content. Even at the time, people in Australia and abroad noticed that the content being blocked went far beyond news—pages from hospitals to fire services ended up being taken down, too. At the time, Facebook said it was an unintentional flub, but a new report from The Wall Street Journal based on whistleblower complaints and internal company documents suggests that the move might have been deliberate.
Complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Justice and Australia’s Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC)—the agency that originally proposed the aforementioned news legislation—allege that the company sparked “a criminal conspiracy to obtain a thing of value, namely favorable regulatory treatment.”
Facebook did achieve its ends; head of partnerships Campbell Brown wrote that the company “landed exactly where we wanted to” with regards to the law’s provisions. By the time the ACCC ended up filing the legislation, it had been watered down from its original form, and now allowed a two-month mediation period to let companie like Facebook and Google agree to deals before being forced to enter arbitration with publishers. A blog post from Facebook’s Nick Clegg at the time noted that the company was satisfied with the tweaks.
As employees working on the project told The Journal, this wasn’t the mistake that Facebook publicly made it out to be. Rather, the company devised a filtering algorithm for Australian feeds that would deliberately target more than just the country’s news outlets, the whistleblowers said. Facebook had shunted access to countless vital services to the millions of users across the country as part of its flex, they alleged. Employees reportedly said that when they tried to point out what an obvious issue this was, the higher-ups at the company either issued hand-wavy responses or ignored their concerns entirely.
One Faceboook employee who worked on the project wrote to the Australian regulator, “It was clear this was not us complying with the law, but a hit on civic institutions and emergency services in Australia.”
COO Sheryl Sandberg praised the “thoughtfulness of the strategy” and “precision of execution,” according to internal emails. CEO Mark Zuckerberg likewise congratulated the team.
A Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo about the case, “The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian government Pages from restrictions in an effort to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation.”
“When we were unable to do so as intended due to a technical error, we apologized and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false,” they went on.