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Facebook blocks news content in Australia in row over proposed media law

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By Lauren Chadwick
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An Australian Broadcasting Corporation page on Facebook is displayed without posts in Sydney, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
An Australian Broadcasting Corporation page on Facebook is displayed without posts in Sydney, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Rick Rycroft
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Facebook restricted people from viewing and sharing news content in Australia over a proposed law to make digital giants pay media organisations.

Users in Australia could not see posts for news organisations on Thursday and instead saw a blank feed stating that there are no posts yet for those websites. They are also unable to share news articles on the social media platform.

The restrictions even extended to some government services with Queensland's health department stating their Facebook page was down but then later restored.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said their Facebook page was also down but later reinstated by the company. They encouraged Australians to use their website or app instead of social media to view content.

Facebook has said that Australia's "proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content".

"It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter," said William Easton, Facebook's managing director in Australia and New Zealand.

The Media Bargaining Law is designed to fix a "power imbalance" between the digital platforms and organisations, providing standards and allowing organisations to be paid for content.

It also introduces minimum standards so that news organisations are aware of algorithm changes and user data availability.

Facebook's regional managing director Easton said the legislation "seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for".

Facebook's move also came amid government talks with both Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who is also against the legislation.

Australia treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Wednesday he had a "constructive discussion" with 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," Frydenberg tweeted.

Marietje Schaake at Stanford University's Cyber Policy Centre said "Facebook leaving Australia over a law it doesn’t like, implies it agrees with laws in other countries" mentioning a law in Turkey that forced digital platforms to appoint representatives to manage authorities' complaints and remove content.

She tweeted that the proposed legislation is not yet in force in Australia "so this may also be the kind of strong-arming through which Facebook hopes to bully its way to its desired outcome".

Government communications minister Paul Fletcher questioned why Facebook would "resist the introduction of blocking requirements under our legislation in relation to abhorrent violent material yet it turns out that you can block thousands of pages of wholly unobjectionable content overnight".

Fletcher said the Australian government was "committed to this code" and that Facebook should come back to a sensible conversation with the government.