Whistleblowers claim Facebook deliberately blocked government information

By Melissa Coade

Monday May 23, 2022

A new academic briefing suggests Facebook used a deliberate strategy to weaken Australia’s media bargaining code. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

A new academic briefing suggests Facebook used a deliberate strategy to weaken Australia’s media bargaining code, leveraging its position with a planned blackout of national news sources in February last year. 

The report, produced by Reset Australia and the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) tech and policy lab Minderoo, said the tech company undertook ‘covert planning’ ahead of its negotiations with the federal government on how to ‘extort’ concessions in Facebook’s favour. 

Some of Facebook’s tactics included forming an ‘ACCC response team’ as far back as August 2020. The group’s single goal of the team, working over seven months, was to counter the impact of the code, and time the shutdown of Facebook pages in a way that gave maximum leverage in the legislative process.

“The ACCC response team had modelled different options for a take down and enacted the most extreme version, with knowledge that its impact would extend beyond news. Emergency, health and government services all suffered,” the briefing read.

“Facebook could have reversed the widespread, damaging blackout but did not. The response team did not follow the company’s usual checks and balances, such as cross checks with sensitive pages and Xcheck list, which typically prevent takedowns from causing adverse effects or ‘over moderating’.”

The revelations came to light in May after employees from the social media giant blew the whistle on actions of senior management at Facebook, who are alleged to have ‘celebrated’ the precision of their strategy to influence Australian policy.  

Associate Professor Julia Powles, Minedroo director and UWA law expert, said Facebook’s actions undermined Australia’s lawmaking process. She claimed the tech company’s ‘unprecedented tactical response’ resulted in a weaker code, and also achieved a worse deal for Australian journalism.

“Facebook’s behaviour has been recognised as appalling,” Powles said.

“More than that, the whistleblowers’ evidence demonstrates that Facebook’s gain and publishers’ losses were secured by dishonesty, squarely raising questions of civil and criminal liability for fraud,” the academic said. 

The briefing identified three things about Facebook’s negotiating tactics, with the researchers warning it was a cautionary tale for other countries who were drafting their own news media bargaining codes. Crucially, the report underscored the company knew its activities were dangerous and that it intended for the news blackout to be widespread and damaging. 

“The ACCC response team were silenced: They were required to sign an extra NDA, which is an anomaly, and were told to never put anything that could be inferred as intent in writing,” the briefing said of the company’s efforts to cover its own tracks. 

“Facebook normally undertakes a ‘post mortem analysis’ of any significant issues: This has not happened in this case, which is highly unusual. Some Facebook staff expressed concerns, and were reassured that this was an accident.”

Powles said the concessions Meta achieved in the media bargaining code gave it wins in four key areas: 1) making it unlikely Facebook would be designated by the code and subjected to the law if it made a contribution to publishers; 2) ensuring ample advance notice was given should the company be considered for designation; 3) clearing Facebook for disregarding non-discrimination protections (and to negotiate differently with news businesses); and 4) delaying arbitration.

“These changes secured economic advantage to Facebook and other platforms while depriving many small and mid-tier news publishers of the economic opportunities that would have flowed from platforms being subject to the code,” Powles said.


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