Facebook Accused of Deliberately Causing Havoc in Australia Over News Content Law

Whistleblowers who sent documents to US and Australian authorities, as well as The Wall Street Journal, accuse the company of more hardball politics.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
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The social networking giant has been at the center of seemingly endless controversies over how it runs its business.

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A new report from The Wall Street Journal on Thursday revealed internal Facebook messages praising teams for seemingly hardball tactics taking down pages of the Australian government, including emergency services and charities. This all reportedly happened as the country was considering a new law that would require companies like Google and Facebook to pay for news posted to their platforms.

The report, which included documents sent to Australian and US authorities by a whistleblower, detailed how Facebook hadn't followed standard processes for changing its features when it began banning news from its platform in Australia a year ago. Facebook said at the time that it acted to avoid potential lawsuits. But the whistleblower accused the company of attempting to influence Australia's political process by exerting "maximum negotiating leverage."

"Despite saying it was targeting only news outlets, the company deployed an algorithm for deciding what pages to take down that it knew was certain to affect more than publishers," the Journal reported, citing documents and people familiar with the matter. Affected pages reportedly weren't notified in advance, and there was no system to appeal the takedowns.

A spokeswoman for Meta, which owns Facebook, disagreed with the Journal's findings, noting that documents from the whistleblower "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."

The Journal's report is the latest in a series of disclosures from whistleblowers who have revealed the company's aggressive and sometimes deceptive business practices. In one case, the Journal reported that Meta's Instagram social network had been aware of negative impacts on younger users of its app but failed to act. In another, a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, accused the company of putting profits ahead of user safety.

Some of the earlier whistleblower documents, which were also shared with CNET and a consortium of other publications, detailed how Facebook is struggling to rein in harassment in its next big technology, virtual reality.