In February last year, Facebook briefly blocked publishers and people in Australia from sharing and viewing news on its platform. The dramatic move came in response to the Australian government’s controversial media law that sought to mandate Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for surfacing their content on their respective platforms. But when the tech giant started blocking news sites, it also took down pages of health agencies, emergency services, and public welfare networks. At the time, Facebook said it was a mistake. But documents submitted to the US and Australian authorities by whistleblowers allege that Facebook deliberately removed those pages.
According to the documents, Facebook had formed a team of about a dozen people, largely consisting of members of the Facebook News team, as it prepared to remove the news content. But instead of using the database of existing news publishers, dubbed News Page Index, the team developed a new, overly broad news classifier that ensured that the process would affect more than just news content.
“If 60% of [sic] more of a domain’s content shared on Facebook is classified as news, then the entire domain will be considered a news domain,” stated one internal document.
As Facebook began the takedown, pages of government agencies, healthcare, and emergency services became inaccessible to Australians. The timing couldn’t have been worse, as the blackout came just as the Australian government was in the process of announcing the COVID vaccination rollout.
The report notes that Facebook officials internally hailed the move as a strategic masterstroke.
Facebook’s head of partnerships, Campbell Brown, hailed the company’s aggressive stance in a congratulatory email to her team when the Australian Senate passed a more lenient bill.
“We landed exactly where we wanted to — and that was only possible because this team was genius enough to pull it off in zero time.”
Meanwhile, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sent out the following email congratulating the team:
“The thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved sets a new high-standard.”
A Facebook spokesperson denied the accusations, stating that the blackout of government pages was not a deliberate act but rather a technical error.
“The documents in question 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.”
Source: The WSJ