The Wall Street Journal on Friday published information from Facebook whistleblowers alleging that Facebook (which is owned by Meta) deliberately wreaked havoc in Australia last year to influence the News Media Trading Code before it is adopted as law.
During the Facebook blackout in February 2021, thousands of non-news pages were also blocked, including important emergency, health, charity and government pages.
Meta continued to claim that the removal of nonprofit and government pages was a technical error. It remains to be seen whether the whistleblowers’ revelations will lead to Facebook being sued.
The effects of Facebook’s “mistake”
The News Media Trading Code was first released in July 2020, with the aim of ensuring that Facebook and Google pay Australian news publishers for the content they provide to platforms.
It was passed by the House of Representatives (Australia’s lower house) on February 17, 2021. On the same day, Facebook retaliated by issuing a statement saying it would remove access to commercial news media pages on his platform – a threat he first made in August. 2020.
This was arguably a reasonable threat of a capital strike by a foreign direct investor, over new regulations which he considered “harmful” – and which he said fundamentally “misunderstands the relationship between [its] platform and the publishers who use it to share news content”.
However, the range of blocked pages was extensive.
Facebook has a tag called “News Page Index” that can be applied to its pages. News media pages, such as those of the ABC and SBS, are included in the index. All Australian pages in this index were removed during the Facebook blackout.
But Facebook has also blocked access to other pages, such as the page of the satirical site The Betoota Advocate. The breadth of Facebook’s approach was also highlighted by the blocking of its own business page.
The biggest harm, however, came from blocks to nonprofit pages, including cancer charities, the Bureau of Meteorology, and a variety of state health department pages — at one point. where they provided crucial information about COVID-19 and vaccines.
Extremely worrying to note this morning that @StVincentsMelbThe Facebook page of has been blocked – this during a pandemic and on the eve of the crucial distribution of the COVID vaccine. We hope that this situation can be corrected very soon.
– St Vincent’s Health (@StVHealthAust) February 17, 2021
The whistleblower material published by the Wall Street Journal, which was also filed with the US Department of Justice and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), includes several chain letters that show that Facebook has decided to implement its blocking threat through a comprehensive strategy.
The argument for its broad approach rested on an anti-avoidance clause in the News Media Code of Negotiation. The effect of the clause was to ensure that Facebook did not try to circumvent the rules of the code by simply replacing Australian information with international information for Australian users. In other words, it would have to be all or nothing.
As a result, Facebook did not use its news page index. Instead, it categorized a domain as “news” if “60% [or] more of the content of a shared domain on Facebook is classified as news”. A product manager wrote:
Hi everyone – the [proposed Australian law] that we respond to is extremely broad, so the advice from the policy and legal team has been to be overly inclusive and refine as we get more information.
The blocking approach was algorithmic and based on these rules. There were a few exceptions, including not blocking “.gov” – but no such exclusion for “.gov.au”. This had the effect of removing many charity and government pages.
The whistleblower material makes it clear that a number of Facebook employees offered solutions to the perceived overreach. This included an employee’s suggestion that Facebook should “proactively find all affected pages and restore them.” However, the documents show that these calls were ignored.
According to the Wall Street Journal:
The whistleblower documents show that Facebook tried to exclude government and education pages. But people familiar with Facebook’s response said some of those lists performed poorly in the rollout, while other whitelists didn’t cover enough pages to prevent widespread inappropriate blocking.
Changes following the failure
Following the Facebook blackout, last-minute amendments were made to the bill before it passed the Senate.
The main change was that the News Media Trading Code would only apply to Facebook if deals were not reached with a range of key news companies (which so far did not include SBS Where The conversation).
It’s unclear if the amendment was the result of Facebook’s actions or if it would have been introduced in the Senate anyway. In both cases, Facebook said it was “satisfied” with the result and ended its blackout.
Facebook denies the allegations
The definitions of “main news content” and “news source” in the News Media Code of Negotiation were reasonably narrow. So Facebook’s decision to block pages so widely seems problematic, especially from a reputational risk perspective.
But as soon as this risk crystallized, Facebook denied any intention to harm. A Meta spokesperson said the removal of the non-news pages was a “mistake” and that “any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.” Referring to the whistleblower documents, the spokesperson said:
The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian Government pages from the restrictions in order to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation. When we couldn’t do it as planned due to a technical error, we apologized and worked to fix it.
Possible legal action
Immediately after Facebook’s broad pullout, former ACCC President Allan Fels suggested there could be a series of class action lawsuits against Facebook.
Its basis was that Facebook’s action was inadmissible under Australian consumer law. We have not seen these measures taken.
It’s unclear whether the whistleblower’s material changes the likelihood of legal action against Facebook. If a lawsuit is brought, it is more likely to be a civil case brought by an organization that has been harmed, rather than a criminal case.
On the other hand, one reading of the material is that Facebook actually overstepped the line out of caution and then reduced the scope of its blocking for a short period of time.
Facebook suffered reputational damage as a result of his actions and issued an apology. However, if he has engaged in similar actions in other countries, the balance between his actions being a gimmick, versus a plot, changes.
The Wall Street Journal described Facebook’s approach as an “overbroad and sloppy process.” Such a process is not good practice, but done once is unlikely to be criminal. On the other hand, repeating it would create a completely different set of potential liabilities and causes of action.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.