Three hours after the Australian Facebook news blackout on February 17, 2021, a concerned employee sent a note to colleagues at the social media company.
“Australia’s news ban has removed pages that are not sources of news,” the note said, pointing to government blocked pages, fire and emergency services, official health pages and charities against domestic violence.
“We should be proactive here, not reactive, given the damage this is doing to Facebook’s reputation in Australia.”
Some pages, including the Bureau of Meteorology and 1800Respect, were quickly restored, but others like WWF-Australia and Women’s Legal Service were not.
Whistleblowers at Facebook’s parent company Meta have now called the move a bargaining tactic in a long-running fight over legislation that would have forced Meta and Google to negotiate with news outlets over payment for their content. .
Whistleblower Aid’s submission to US lawmakers and the competition regulator in Australia was made public this month, featuring screenshots of the internal conversation on Facebook.
A tactic that worked
Australia’s Facebook ban was the culmination of a standoff between Meta and the former Morrison government over its News Media Negotiating Code – the legislation that forces digital platforms to negotiate with media companies of information.
Platforms “designated” under the code are subject to its terms, which means they must enter into an agreement with all media companies that meet the code’s criteria, otherwise they must go to an arbitrator to determine the payment level.
Platforms that refuse to negotiate with media companies face fines of $10 million, or 10% of their Australian annual revenue, or three times the profit earned – whichever is higher.
When consulting on the code, Meta warned that it would mean the news would disappear from Facebook. The decision to ban it while the legislation was pending in parliament was a show of force.
Publicly, the company claimed the blocking of non-news pages was an accident, but whistleblowers allege the company deliberately blocked non-news sites as a ploy — a ploy that ultimately worked.
After the news ban, former treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and former communications minister, Paul Fletcher, reached an agreement with Meta that prevented him from being appointed under the law, as long as he could demonstrate that he had made deals with enough media companies.
Soon Meta had signed deals with Australia’s biggest news publishers to pay for their news content, but since he wasn’t designated by code, he didn’t have to make deals with everyone. of them.
Senior Meta executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, sent congratulatory emails to staff involved in the ban.
“It’s something we prepared for, but the last two weeks have been intense,” Zuckerberg said in a screenshot included in the submission. “We were able to execute quickly and take a principled approach for our community across the world, while achieving what could be the best possible outcome in Australia.”
Whistleblowers’ lawyer Andrew Bakaj said employees felt compelled to speak out to set the record straight on what really happened.
“The motivation was pretty clear in terms of why they did the Australian pullout and how they did it,” he told Guardian Australia. “So I think after going through this and seeing this, the whistleblowers felt it was time to come forward to set the record straight for the people of Australia.”
According to the allegations made in the document, Meta had set up a specialist internal team to respond to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which was drafting the legislation. Team members were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, which whistleblowers described as outside the norm for the company.
During the shutdown, several non-team employees tried to sound the alarm about the blocking of non-news pages, but screenshots of conversations in the submission show they were either ignored or appeased, even by offering simple technical solutions that would have quickly restored the wrongly blocked pages.
Meta declined to comment on the allegations made in the submission.
What’s the long game?
At the time of the news ban, Frydenberg said Australia had been a “proxy battle” for the rest of the world over the regulation of Google and Facebook.
“I have no doubt that so many other countries are watching what is happening here in Australia, because of this innovative code that the Morrison government is now pursuing, so Facebook and Google have made no secret of the fact that they know that the eyes of the world are on Australia, and that’s why they’ve been looking to get a working code here,” he said.
Other countries are now looking to replicate what Australia did, but there’s no immediate way to stop Facebook from running the same playbook.
“I think because it happened in Australia and they can effectively hold the Australian people and the Australian government hostage… they could do it anywhere,” Bakaj said. “It could have happened again, and hopefully the likelihood is less now because it’s so public, but you can only hope.”
In Australia, Meta and Google have signed dozens of multi-million deals with a number of news organisations, including Guardian Australia, but Meta has been a reluctant negotiator, even for those it has struck deals with. agreements.
Only around 41% of Australian publications have been able to secure deals with Meta, and the company refuses to negotiate with at least two larger publishers: academic news site The Conversation and multicultural public broadcaster SBS.
There is renewed pressure for Meta to be designated under the code to force more negotiations, with former ACCC President Rod Sims calling for Meta to be designated after a review of the code by the Treasury in September.
The new Labor government had backed the code in opposition but has yet to say whether it will make any changes.
Bakaj said his team has not received a response from Meta, the US Congress or the ACCC to the submission, but he hopes it will trigger an investigation. He said that in the United States, where most of Meta’s operations take place, there was close bipartisan agreement between Democrats and Republicans that Meta wielded too much power, but that was it.
“There was a lawmaker who said to me ‘Democrats and Republicans agree there is a problem with Facebook, the problem is they disagree on the solution’ “, did he declare.
“And so there is, I think, an effort to move forward, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in phase on how to fix it.”