Ever-growing tensions between world governments and Big Tech escalated to a new level in February, when Facebook ‘unfriended’ Australia and blocked all news content to the entire country.

The Australian House of Representatives approved a law to compel internet companies to pay news organisations. In retaliation, Facebook restricted the posting of all news links and all posts from news pages in Australia.

Facebook said the law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it.”

However, Facebook not only blocked news websites but government health pages (which could have up-to-the-minute information about Covid). This was, to some, a passive-aggressive admission and demonstration of monopoly power.

It has raised concern and debate about the amount of power that Big Tech firms have, and where the line is drawn between competition and regulation.

In a statement, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were 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.”

“They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”

The Facts

A law passed by the Australian government forces tech firms to pay for news content on their platforms. It comes after Australian authorities proposed the legislation to “level the playing field” on profits between the tech giants and independent publishers.

Facebook, in direct retaliation to this, subsequently banned news content from Australia. Facebook’s perspective is that it offers more benefit to news networks than news networks offer to them, and therefore to pay money would be a nonsensical decision.

Therefore, they restricted news content to Australia as a demonstration to show how little worth news companies have to their platform.

Facebook’s local managing director William Easton said in a statement, “[regarding the Australian legislation] It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

Australian news outlets are no longer able to post links or content to their Facebook pages, and Australians will no longer be able to link news articles from not only Australian sites but all news sites around the world via Facebook.

Facebook also inadvertently blocked other pages (including government health pages) in an attempt to try and meet the definition of ‘news’. “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”, a Facebook spokeswoman said.

CNBC discussed Facebook’s actions. Video credit: CNBC Television

Politicians, publishers and rights groups have condemned this move, accusing Facebook of bullying and attempting to control the flow of information. They consider it to be a power play, with criticism even coming from outside Australia.

UK Conservative MP Julian Knight called the move “crass”, and said “This is not just about Australia. This is Facebook putting a marker down, saying to the world that ‘if you do wish to limit our powers… we can remove what is for many people a utility’.”

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “We will not be intimidated by Big Tech seeking to pressure our Parliament as it votes on our important News Media Bargaining Code.”

“Just as we weren’t intimidated when Amazon threatened to leave the country and when Australia drew other nations together to combat the publishing of terrorist content on social media platforms.”

To many people, this move is considered to be an act of war. This is the logical conclusion of unregulated Big Tech firms who have the power to bring a country to its digital knees, and the arrogance to do so. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened.

This situation is simply a competition for power, leverage and resources. For the crime of trying to keep struggling news outlets afloat, Australia took the bold step of charging Facebook to have news content on their platforms. It was essentially a tax on links to news, to hold Big Tech firms financially accountable for anti-competitive practices which harm smaller media outlets.

Facebook, in its arrogance, decided that they don’t have to play by the rules, because news didn’t contribute much to their revenue stream. They understood that, if anything, news publishers needed them more than they needed publishers. This was a power move.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, makes his feelings known.

In addition to this not only did Facebook ban news articles and links, but they also banned non-news related pages including utility pages. Pages such as government and state health pages, emergency services, domestic violence charities and others simply disappeared.

Facebook’s excuse for this (not being able to distinguish between news articles and up-to-date info) is a weak one. This has demonstrated their true motive; to shut down and silence organisations (including sovereign countries) who dare to hold them accountable. By doing so, Facebook shot themselves in the foot.

This was a bad move, and will inevitably lead to more cases like this. When a private company has consolidated so much power, to the extent that they can silence entire countries and stop the majority of the flow of news and information at its will, action must be taken. It’s simply too much power for any company to have.

Big Tech is long overdue for a reckoning. Australia might be the first company to stand up to Facebook, but it shouldn’t be the last.

In recent times, Facebook has been in the news for negative reasons such as anti-competitive practices, media censorship or algorithmic bias. The ban in Australia is the latest battle Facebook is waging against governments.

No matter what moral justification Facebook or Australia had for their actions it is clear that this is ultimately about power. In a time where governments are looking to break up big tech, Facebook flexed their muscles. They have shown that there are consequences for governments that make decisions that are interpreted as hostile (to big tech companies).

An important thing to note is that Facebook is already paying for some news and has entered commercial deals with companies in the United Kingdom. Despite this, they blocked services in Australia for lawmakers proposing the same thing. It is clear that Facebook retaliates to legislation on a case-by-case basis. A warm or hostile response would depend on whether or not a certain response is beneficial for Facebook.

In my opinion, Facebook was well within its right to ban to retaliate the way it did. Facebook is not an NGO or charity. Neither is it a community interest company or any of the sort. It is a private company whose core business model relies on advertising and data and I think it is time our expectations of Facebook should be based on what Facebook is.

If we are being totally honest Facebook doesn’t care about the news. It fired its trending news team four years ago and replaced them with an algorithm. It was able to censor news for an entire nation with a snap of a finger. If Facebook wants to ban a region from its services (or seeing the news) then as a private company that is their prerogative.

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Aaron Fenton-Hewitt is an aspiring journalist and political commentator. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Film from London Metropolitan University, and a Master's in Writing for Creative and Professional Practice from Middlesex University. He wishes to continue his academic career, with a PhD in Politics or related field.

Aaron is also a freelance photographer, an avid foodie and an Arsenal supporter.

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