Facebook accused of deliberately blocking government and health pages in Australia

Whistleblowers say the platform wanted more negotiating power in the event of a potential law.

Dado Ruvic / reuters

Whisteblowers are accusing Facebook of purposely blocking government, healthcare and emergency services pages in Australia in order to thwart a potential law that would require platforms to pay for news, according to WSJ. The accusers say the platform last year created an algorithm to identify pages that would affect the most publishers. But Facebook reportedly didn’t just take down pages for media outlets — it also removed pages for hospitals, governments and charities.

According to the documents, Facebook put together a team of roughly a dozen employees who were tasked with removing news content from Australia. The team sidestepped an existing Facebook database of existing news publishers. Instead, the Facebook employees quickly created a new algorithm with a definition of news broad enough to grab a large number of non-news pages. “If 60 percent of [sic] more of a domain’s content shared on Facebook is classified as news, then the entire domain will be considered a news domain,” stated one internal document.

The end-result was that — for several days — Australians weren’t able to access or share any news or information from governments and healthcare services pages on Facebook. The timing was particularly bad, since the nation was just about to embark on a mass vaccination campaign for Covid-19. A number of Australian health officials decried the move. "It is truly ironic that Facebook has allowed health misinformation to be spread via its platform throughout this pandemic, yet today much of this misinformation remains on Facebook while official information sources are blocked … [The decision is] corporate bullying at its worst,” Australian Medical Association President Dr. Omar Khorshid told NBC last year.

Facebook’s troubles in Australia began when the nation’s Parliament began devising ways to force companies to pay publishers for news content distributed via search products and social media platforms. Back in February 2021, the Australian House of Representatives passed a version of this legislation opposed by Facebook. The company then blocked Australians from sharing or viewing news on the platform altogether. Following days of public outcry, the Australian Parliament eventually negotiated with Facebook and passed a new, more lenient bill that had the support of the social media giant. Facebook then reversed the ban.

Facebook has maintained that blocking the government and healthcare pages was accidental. “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,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told WSJ. “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.”

The documents that the whistleblowers submitted were filed with the US Department of Justice and the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, WSJ reported. A number of members of the US Congress were also given copies of the Facebook documents.