A group of whistleblowers who worked for what was then Facebook Inc. have come out and said that during the fall-out with Australia over news content the company deliberately blocked websites related to government, healthcare, and emergency services, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal today.
Last year, Australia adopted a media law that would force social media companies to pay for news content that appeared on their platforms, which at first resulted in Australians not being able to read news content on Facebook. Sometime later, a deal was struck between the social media giant, Australian media, and the Australian government.
Now the whistleblowers have provided documents that show that Facebook did a bit more than take down the pages of your average news publisher, with those documents showing that the company created an algorithm that would block a whole range of content outside of traditional news media. This wasn’t a good time to pull down health services content seeing as though COVID-19 vaccination campaigns were in full swing.
According to the WSJ, the move was to “exert maximum negotiating leverage over the Australian Parliament.” Once blocked, Facebook apparently didn’t give the sites any recourse for appeal, and they’d had no warning about the block beforehand. One of the documents said, “If 60 percent 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.”
The documents also show that some of the employees involved with this move aired their concerns to executives at the company, but those concerns reportedly fell on deaf ears. It seems Facebook got what it wanted in the end, with emails showing executives, including Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, congratulating each other.
“We were able to execute quickly and take a principled approach for our community around the world, while achieving what might be the best possible outcome in Australia,” he wrote in one email. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg chimed in, saying, “The thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved sets a new high-standard.” Now it seems, Meta is denying it happened the way the whistleblowers are saying it did, expressing that an error was made.
“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,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told the WSJ. “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.”
The documents of concern are now in the hands of the U.S. Department of Justice as well as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Some members of U.S. Congress have also seen the documents.