Facebook Accused of Deliberately Blocking Emergency Services That Time It Pulled News From Australia

Facebook Accused of Deliberately Blocking Emergency Services That Time It Pulled News From Australia
Image: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Remember last year when news services were removed from Facebook? Remember how that also saw pages belonging to the likes of hospitals and charities no longer available on the social media site? Well, turns out Facebook, now Meta, knew exactly what it was doing when it blocked emergency services pages.

In an article originally posted by The Wall Street Journal, it was revealed Facebook deliberately caused havoc in Australia by removing the pages of emergency services. The WSJ says such admission was made by whistleblowers.

In response to Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code becoming law, Facebook pulled the news sharing function from its platform on February 18, 2021.

The move made good on a threat made months prior, and restricted publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.

Despite the government calling the now-legislated bargaining code “necessary for addressing the fundamental bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and major digital platforms”, Facebook considered it ignoring the realities of its relationship with publishers and news creators.

It wasn’t just Facebook. Six months prior, Google threatened to remove its search engine in Australia over the same law. Regardless, it was passed.

Among the pages blocked were NSW Fire and Rescue and the Royal Children’s Hospital. The block even made its way into mum’s groups. Facebook at the time said blocking hospitals, charities and emergency service pages was “inadvertent”. The whistleblowers, the WSJ says, claimed however that Facebook deliberately used an over-zealous blocking system that took down these pages (and many, many more) as a negotiating tactic.

“It was clear this was not us complying with the law, but a hit on civic institutions and emergency services in Australia,” the Journal quotes one employee who worked on the project as saying.

Negotiations between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mark Zuckerberg himself continued into the weekend and within days, the government struck a deal with the tech giant and the ban was lifted.

Documents reportedly show Meta did not use its database of news organisations, rather that it built a new “crude” algorithm that would label any page that shared 60 per cent news content as a news provider. The Journal says internal planning documents also show the takedown was pre-planned to be ready before an appeals process for errors. Whistleblowers say this was not a normal process.

Meta has of course denied these claims.

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 minimise the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation.”

“When we were unable to do so as intended due to a technical error, we apologised and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false,” they went on.

On an unrelated note, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to delete your Facebook account, if you’re curious.