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Facebook's botched Australia news ban hits health departments, charities and its own pages

The Guardian logo The Guardian 18/02/2021 Josh Taylor
a screen shot of a computer: Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Bureau of Meteorology, state health departments, the Western Australian opposition leader, charities and Facebook itself are among those to have been blocked on Facebook in Australia as a result of the company’s wide-ranging ban on sharing or viewing news.

a screen shot of a computer: Facebook has removed dozens of pages run by government departments, community organisations, charities and satire news outlets as part of its decision to ban Australian news. © Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian Facebook has removed dozens of pages run by government departments, community organisations, charities and satire news outlets as part of its decision to ban Australian news.

On Thursday morning Facebook began preventing Australian news sites from posting, while also stopping Australian users from sharing or viewing content from any news outlets, both Australian and international.

The social media giant said it made the decision in response to the news media bargaining code currently before the Senate, which would force Facebook and Google to negotiate with news companies for payment for content.

Related: Australia politics live: Facebook takes down government health and emergency pages in news ban

While the ban was only meant to target Australian news publishers, dozens of pages run by key government agencies, community pages, union pages, charity organisations and politicians have also been hit by the news ban.

Australia’s main source of weather information, the Bureau of Meteorology, said it had been hit by the block, and was advising users to go to its direct website, app or Twitter page.

As Australia prepares to begin the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, state health departments, including SA Health and Queensland Health, were unable to post.

St Vincent’s Health in Melbourne said it was “extremely concerning” its Facebook page had been blocked “during a pandemic and on the eve of crucial Covid vaccine distribution”.

The shadow health minister, Mark Butler, said it was “completely irresponsible” behaviour by Facebook, and the pages needed to be restored.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” he tweeted. “Australians need to hear from credible voices in the vaccine rollout. This is completely irresponsible from Facebook. The Morrison government needs to fix this today.”


Video: Australia slams 'heavy-handed' Facebook news blackout (France 24)

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The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said the federal government needed to “sort it out.”

“It needs to be fixed up and it needs to be fixed up today.”

The Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services’s page was also stripped of content.

A number of Australian Capital Territory government pages were also caught up in Facebook’s action.

Just weeks out from the Western Australian election, the state’s opposition leader, Zak Kirkup, also was blocked, while incumbent premier Mark McGowan’s page remained unaffected.

1800 Respect, Mission Australia, Hobart Women’s Shelter, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Australian Wildlife Conservancy and a number of other charities were also blocked on Thursday.

Labor’s shadow assistant minister for communities and the prevention of family violence, Jenny McAllister, said the government “needs to explain why this has happened on their watch and what they are doing to get essential domestic violence services back up and running on Facebook.”

Cricket Australia and the Australian Council of Trade Unions were also hit with the ban.

So to were satire news outlets such as Betoota Advocate, the Chaser, and ABC’s Mad As Hell. Facebook itself was also blocked in Australia.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the blocks on non-news organisations had been by mistake.

“The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content,” she said.

“As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted. However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.”

People outside of Australia, or those who are not logged into Facebook, are still able to view the content on these pages.

The Facebook chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, spoke with the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, on Thursday morning in the wake of the wide-ranging ban of content from Facebook. Frydenberg described the discussion as “constructive”.

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