THE FACEBOOK news ban in Australia has sparked chaos after blocking crucial information about the Covid vaccine just days before the national rollout.
The social media giant has banned the sharing or viewing of news links on its platform in Australia in response to a proposed law compelling tech giants to pay for journalism.
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The brazen decision to "unfriend Australia" has been described as "disgraceful" by politicians in Australia and slammed by media commentators across the world.
On Thursday morning, Australians woke to empty Facebook news feeds.
Australian news organisations could not post stories and people who tried to share existing news stories got notifications saying they were blocked from doing so.
And Facebook also wiped out pages from Australian state governments, emergency services, and charities – three days before the launch of a nationwide coronavirus vaccination programme.
Health departments said information about the vaccine rollout was blocked from pages in the chaotic news ban and urged Facebook to "fix this urgently".
"We are in the process of rolling out the first phase of our Covid-19 vaccine program and social media is a key tool with which to communicate this information," Robert Hoge, executive director of strategic communications at Queensland Health, said in a statement.
"The decision to block access to our content could hinder our ability to communicate to high-risk groups."
'THEY GOT THIS ONE WRONG'
He added: "I applaud Facebook for taking action against anti-vaxxers, Pete Evans and other peddlers of harmful views and conspiracies, however they got this one wrong.
"While our social media platforms have a better reach than many news services, and are more reliable, we are in fact not a news service.
"Facebook should fix this urgently."
The state health department said it uses Facebook to alert locals to emergencies, including Covid-19 and flu, to bushfire smoke, heatwaves, and storms and flooding.
Its Facebook page was seen by 65.6 million users in January alone – signifying the huge reach of vital information on the page.
Other crucial organisations were hit by the news blackout.
FoodBank Australia boss Brianna Casey said her organisation could no longer access its page on Thursday.
"Demand for food relief has never been higher than during this pandemic," she said.
"Hours matter when you have nothing to eat. SORT THIS OUT!"
Other charities, including the 1800Respect domestic violence support line, also found their pages wiped on Thursday.
The page of NSW Fire and Rescue Service and Department of Fire and Emergency Services WA were also wiped, leaving locals without access to important bushfire alerts.
Homeless charities, weather services and sports pages were also blocked.
The official Facebook social media page on the platform was also caught in the firing line, according to Daily Mail Australia.
Facebook later said the wiping of government department pages was a mistake and many have been reinstated.
The tech giant's decision to ban news on the platform in Australia has been slammed as an "abuse of power".
"This is an assault on a sovereign nation,” Health Minster Greg Hunt told Parliament.
"It is an assault on people’s freedom and, in particular, it’s an utter abuse of big technologies’ market power and control over technology."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would not be "intimidated" by the brazen move by the tech giant.
"Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing," Morrison posted on Facebook.
"These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.
"They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.
"We will not be intimidated by BigTech seeking to pressure our Parliament."
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton slammed the "arrogant" move and also claimed Facebook was creating the "perfect" platform for paedophiles through its end-to-end encryption.
He told Daily Mail Australia: "Facebook's arrogance isn't restricted to their decision to ban Australian news.
"Their push for end-to-end encryption will make it easier for paedophiles to share child sexual exploitation material."
End-to-end encryption – already used by WhatsApp – means only the people communicating can see their messages.
A Facebook spokesman told Daily Mail Australia it has "zero tolerance" for behaviour which exploits children.
"We work closely with law enforcement agencies in Australia and around the world to report and remove harmful content," he said.
"Facebook leads the industry in combating child abuse online and we'll continue to do so on our private messaging services."
Facebook's move to ban news on its platform in Australia comes as politicians are considering forcing digital businesses to reach paid-for-news agreements with media companies.
The draft legislation being looked at could create a so-called News Media Bargaining Code.
On Wednesday, William Easton, managing director at Facebook Australia and New Zealand, said the "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," Easton said.
"With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter."
Amnesty International described Facebook's decision to block news sites as "extremely concerning".
Tim O’Connor, Amnesty International Australia campaigner, said: "It is extremely concerning that a private company is willing to control access to information that people rely on.
"Facebook’s action starkly demonstrates why allowing one company to exert such dominant power over our information ecosystem threatens human rights.
"It’s alarming that community support groups, emergency services and charities have had their content blocked."
He added: "Facebook’s willingness to block credible news sources also stands in sharp distinction to the company’s poor track record in addressing the spread of hateful content and disinformation on the platform."
Even Stephen Scheeler, former boss of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, accused the social media giant of trying to "bully and intimidate" the country.
Meanwhile, Julian Knight, chair of the UK Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee told Reuters: "This action – this bully boy action – that they've undertaken in Australia will, I think, ignite a desire to go further amongst legislators around the world.
"We represent people and I'm sorry but you can't run bulldozer over that – and if Facebook thinks it'll do that it will face the same long-term ire as the likes of big oil and tobacco."
News Media Association chairman Henry Faure Walker said Facebook's ban during a global pandemic was "a classic example of a monopoly power being the school yard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves".
Deals have been done elsewhere to enable search engines to pay media companies for news, as Australian politicians debated amended legislation to create the code.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corp announced a global agreement with tech giant Google that will see them pay for stories.
The ground-breaking deal by the ultimate owner of The Sun and The Times will see the media company contribute to Google News Showcase, an update to its news search platform.
Easton said Facebook and other US technology businesses like Google have "fundamentally different relationships with news".
"Google Search is inextricably intertwined with news and publishers do not voluntarily provide their content," he said.
"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."
Last year Facebook generated around 5.1 billion "free referrals" to Australian publishers, Mr Easton claimed, worth an estimated £227 million.
He said the social media giant receives a "minimal" business gain from news, which makes up less than 4 percent of content users see on their news feed.
"Journalism is important to a democratic society, which is why we build dedicated, free tools to support news organisations around the world in innovating their content for online audiences," he said.
Mr Easton claimed the proposed legislation seeks to "penalise" Facebook for "content it didn't take or ask for".
He said the company is prepared to launch Facebook News in Australia to "significantly increase our investments with local publishers", but would only do so "with the right rules in place".
But furious Facebook users are ditching the social media giant in protest after the news ban.
Outraged users are using the trending hashtags #DeleteFacebook and #BoycottZuckerberg to share farewell rants before deleting their profiles.
Videos of tutorials titled "How to delete Facebook account permanently" have been shared widely and others have shared screenshots of their account deactivation notifications.
Former Deputy Mayor of Maribyrnong, Victoria, Megan Bridger-Darling, said she would be deleting her Facebook account and told followers they could find her on "Twitter, email, phone, and occasionally in the news".
"If Facebook won't support our journalists, I won't support them," she said.
"I choose reliable news sources over a platform that benefits and enables anti-vaxxers, klan members, doxxers, fear-mongerers, and extremists to peddle their messages entirely unopposed."
South Australian man Michael Morand said: "Who is ready to boycott Facebook? #BoycottFacebook #BoycottZuckerberg.
"Send me your mobile number in messenger if you still want to contact me. This social platform has played it’s last card.
"Let’s go back to the old method of talking to each other. With our phones that we pay for every month to use."
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