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Whistleblowers allege Facebook’s chaotic news ban in Australia was a bargaining tactic

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When Facebook briefly blocked all news from posting to its platform in Australia last year, it used too broad a definition of news publisher it knew would cause collateral damage, company whistleblowers say. Complaints filed with the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission and the US Department of Justice allege that the company was involved in “a criminal conspiracy to obtain something of value, namely favorable regulatory treatment”. The Wall Street Journal reports

The news ban was imposed by Facebook last February in protest against a proposed Australian law that would effectively force platform holders like this and Google to pay news publishers when sharing their content. But the ban was implemented chaotically and there were widespread reports that it was blocking government organizations and non-profits in addition to news publishers.

Blocked non-media pages include government organizations such as the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia and Queensland Health and non-profit organizations such as Mission Australia and the Hobart Woman’s shelter. The ban took place during the fire season in Australia, the WSJ notes, and coincided with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the country. In total, the WSJ reports that Facebook has internally acknowledged that it had blocked 17,000 pages it should not have had on the first day of the ban.

“It was clear that we were not complying with the law, but a blow to social institutions and emergency services in Australia,” a whistleblower said in comments from the State Department. WSJ† Facebook began removing the pages on February 18, after the House of Representatives passed an initial draft of the bill, but before the House and Australian Senate final vote the following week.

Facebook publicly admitted at the time that it had a “broad definition” of news content, in light of what it said was a lack of “clear guidelines” in the law. Records of internal calls obtained by the WSJ more evidence that this was the case. †[The proposed Australian law] what we’re responding to is extremely broad, so the policy and legal team’s guidelines were to expand and refine as we get more information,” one product manager wrote in an internal log.

Leaked documents show that the company classified a page as a news publisher if more than 60 percent of the content it shared was classified as news. Documents also suggest the company planned to exclude all government and education domains from the ban.

But the list of organizations that have seen their Facebook pages removed as a result of the ban suggests that these safeguards were not functioning properly, and according to the WSJ, Facebook ignored approaches that could be more targeted news organizations. The company decided not to use its database of news publishers known as the News Page Index, apparently because it relied on news publishers to sign up, and complaints allege that it failed to use existing whitelisting tools to protect important accounts. . It has not initiated an appeals process before pages are blocked and has not notified the affected pages in advance.

Despite the technical difficulties with the media ban, Facebook officials internally praised the company’s response to the legislation. Facebook’s head of partnerships Campbell Brown called the team’s efforts “genius,” while Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said “the thoughtfulness of strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay agile as things evolved.” [set] a new high standard.” CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised the team’s ability to “execute quickly and take a principled approach”.

When Facebook spokesperson Gina Murphy asked for comment, he sent a statement saying: “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 due to a technical error we were unable to do this as intended, we apologized and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and clearly incorrect.”

The law that Facebook was protesting was passed later that month. But it did so while incorporating changed language, meaning the Australian treasurer will have to consider private deals between publishers and platforms before designating a company like Facebook as a legal platform and it could be forced into arbitration. As a result, more than a year after the law was passed, neither Facebook nor Google have been officially designated as a platform under the rules.

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