Facebook unrepentant as Prime Minister dubs emergency services block 'arrogant'

10:07 pm on 18 February 2021

Facebook's head of policy in the Asia-Pacific argues it was the government's proposed law - and not a failure to test their algorithm - that pushed them to "inadvertently" block emergency services pages during bushfire season.

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Photo: 123RF

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has hammered the social media giant over its actions, dubbing them arrogant and disappointing.

Simon Milner, Facebook's head of public policy for the Asia-Pacific region, said the capture of non-news pages reflects what Facebook argues is a broad definition of "news" as defined in the law.

"One of the criticisms we had about the law that was passed by the House of Representatives yesterday is that the definition of news is incredibly broad and vague."

He wouldn't address whether the mass-blocking had been tested, but he conceded some pages were "inadvertently" caught.

"We are correcting those, many of those have already been fully restored and able to share now, and we're continuing to act on others that have been notified to us."

The government has proposed the law to force companies like Google and Facebook to negotiate with media companies.

They are designed to ensure these media companies are fairly remunerated for the use of their content on search engines and social media platforms.

Google has signed deals with publishers in response, but Facebook has chosen to follow through on its threat and remove news for Australian users.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a joint news conference in Japan on November 17, 2020.

Scott Morrison says Australia will not be "intimidated" by big tech Photo: Kiyoshi Ota / POOL / AFP

Morrison released a statement critical of Facebook's "actions to unfriend Australia today", describing them as "as arrogant as they were disappointing".

"These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of big tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them."

He added "we will not be intimidated by big tech".

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher disagrees with Facebook's complaint related to the definition of "news" in the law but has offered to work through the "misunderstanding".

No apology to small business

Milner appeared in a Senate committee in January promising that removing news from Facebook would not affect small business.

"I can reassure the committee… that this [the potential removal of news] does not mean that Facebook would no longer be available for the millions of people in Australia who love Facebook and for the many small businesses, including in regional Australia, that make use of Facebook."

Sallie Jones, who owns a Gippsland dairy business, told the ABC today her business's content had been removed.

"For us not to have Facebook in the first place, which I'm totally freaking out about, but the function of not to be able to share the news links, it's just so disappointing to us as a company," she said.

Her page was reinstated in the afternoon.

Milner declined the opportunity to apologise to her, saying he could not comment on individual cases.

Milner also declined to respond to the question of whether he could understand why Australians were upset, instead replying: "I can understand why people are responding to the actions we're taking today."

When asked why Facebook would do something that would risk impairing the flow of emergency information in the midst of bushfire season, Milner said, "we did not want to do this".

"This is caused by the law that was passed by the House of Representatives yesterday."

The proposed law is likely to be passed by the Senate next week.

Discussions between Facebook and the government are continuing.


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