Facebook bans Australian pages for negotiations: WSJ
Whistleblowers allege that Facebook intentionally banned several non-media accounts in Australia and used this tactic to negotiate over a law.
Whistleblowers claimed that when a proposed Australian legislation wanted to obligate social media platforms to pay publishers in exchange for their news, Facebook used a broad definition of what a publisher is because the company was aware of the damages this step would cause, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The newspaper mentioned that complaints submitted to the US Department of Justice and Australia’s Competition & Consumer Commission allege that Facebook engaged in “a criminal conspiracy to obtain a thing of value, namely favorable regulatory treatment."
On February 18 - after the Australian House of Representatives passed the initial version of the legislation - Facebook started banning thousands of pages in protest.
However, the ban was unorganized, and multiple reports showed that several Australian governmental organizations and NGOs were affected as a result.
The WSJ said that among the banned non-media accounts was the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia. This coincided with Australia's fire season and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The newspaper mentioned that Facebook internally recognized it had mistakingly banned 17,000 non-media accounts. The social media giant also publicly admitted it broadly defined news content, as the proposed Australian bill failed to present a "clear guidance".
The WSJ quoted one whistleblower as saying, “It was clear this was not us complying with the law, but a hit on civic institutions and emergency services in Australia."
Facebook internal conversations obtained by the WSJ show how "overinclusive" the company was in its ban.
“[The proposed Australian law] we are responding to is extremely broad, so guidance from the policy and legal team has been to be overinclusive and refine as we get more information,” the WSJ cited a product manager as saying in an internal log.
The leaked documents that the WSJ was able to obtain revealed that a page would be classified as a news publisher if over 60% of its content was identified as news.
In addition, Facebook ignored its databases - such as the News Page Index - that can identify media outlets that should be banned.
The company did not even include an appeals process before banning pages and did not alert the affected pages in advance.
Despite the random ban, Facebook officials internally praised the move against the legislation. The company's head of partnerships Campbell Brown described the efforts as “genius", as the chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg highlighted that “the thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved [set] a new high-standard.”
On his part, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised his team’s ability to “execute quickly and take a principled approach.”
The WSJ quoted Facebook Spokesperson Gina Murphy as saying that “we intended to exempt Australian government Pages from restrictions in an effort to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation."
Murphy added that "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 WSJ report noted that over a year after the bill was passed, neither Google nor Facebook was designated as platforms that have to pay news publishers.