Facebook started restricting users from viewing or sharing Australian news on Wednesday, because of a proposed law in the country that would require the social network to pay news publishers for content.
Called the News Media Bargaining Code, the legislation also affects Google, which surfaces news articles in search results. News outlets have struggled to compete with tech firms for advertising dollars and say they should be compensated for articles shown on online platforms such as Facebook and Google. Facebook's decision also underscores the tensions between the social media giant and governments that are trying to regulate the tech industry. Facebook's move comes after Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. signed a so the media outlet gets paid for news content.
Facebook said it made a different decision than Google because the business benefits of displaying news on its platform are "minimal," noting that news makes up less than 4% of the content people see in their News Feed.
"Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content. On the other hand, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue," William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, said in a blog post.
The social network, which has been combating misinformation, has also been reducing the amount of political content users see on Facebook.
Facebook said Australian users will be blocked from sharing Australian or international news content on the social network. International publishers will be able to post news content, but links and posts can't be shared by an Australian audience. Australian publishers aren't allowed to share or post content on Facebook Pages.
The new restrictions started rolling out on Wednesday. Some users who visit an Australian news outlet's Facebook Page no longer see any articles displayed. Australian users who try to share news are seeing a notice saying that in response to Australian government legislation, the social network is restricting posting and sharing news.
Facebook didn't specify how it's defining a news publisher, but government organizations and other sites on the platform were also affected by the restrictions. Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said in a tweet that the website for Australian Unions has also been blocked from the platform.
"We are not a news organisation. Australian workers can not now find out about their rights at work via @Facebook. This is disgraceful & needs to be reversed immediately," McManus tweeted.
A Facebook spokeswoman confirmed that some sites were being blocked in error and that the company was working to correct the mistakes.
Facebook's unprecedented decision sparked criticism from politicians, human rights organizations, Australian news outlets and others, some of which urged the company to reverse the restrictions.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a Facebook post that the social network's actions were as "arrogant as they were disappointing" because the company blocked critical information about health and emergency services. "These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them," he said.
On Thursday, Amnesty International USA urged the company to lift the block on Australian news content. "Facebook's action starkly demonstrates why allowing one company to exert such dominant power over our information ecosystem threatens human rights," Amnesty International Australia campaigner Tim O'Connor said in a statement.
Australia Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Wednesday he's had a "constructive discussion" with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "He raised a few remaining issues with the Government's news media bargaining code and we agreed to continue our conversation to try to find a pathway forward," he said in a tweet.
On Thursday, Frydenberg tweeted that conversations with Facebook are continuing over the weekend. "I reiterated Australia remains committed to implementing the code," he said.
Under the proposed legislation, news outlets would be able to bargain with Facebook and Google over how much they should get paid for content shown on these platforms. An FAQ about the potential changes says the new code was created to "address a bargaining power imbalance" between Australian news outlets and major digital platforms.
"While bargaining power imbalances exist in other areas, the bargaining power imbalance between news media businesses and major digital platforms is being addressed as a strong and independent media landscape is essential to a well-functioning democracy," the FAQ says.