There was a short period in 2021 when Facebook blocked all Australian users from sharing news on their feeds. The radical change came in response to a law Project authorities in the country who would strongly encourage the social media company to pay for news content. Even then, people in Australia and abroad noticed that the blocked content went well beyond news: pages of from hospitals to fire departments ended up being removed too. At the time, Facebook said it was an unintentional mistakebut one new report of the Wall Street Journal based on whistleblower complaints and internal company documents suggests that the move could have been deliberate.
Complaints to the US Department of Justice and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) – the agency that originally proposed the aforementioned news legislation – allege that the company initiated “a criminal conspiracy to obtain something of value, namely favorable regulatory treatment”.
Facebook got its way; Partnerships Manager Campbell Brown wrote that the company “landed exactly where we wanted to” with respect to the provisions of the law. By the time the ACCC finally tabled the bill, it had been watered down from its original form, and has now granted a two-month mediation period to allow companies like Facebook and Google to agree to settlements before being forced into arbitration with the publishers. A blog post of Facebook’s Nick Clegg at the time noted that the company was happy with the adjustments.
As employees working on the project told the Journal, that wasn’t the mistake Facebook publicly announced. Instead, the company designed a filtering algorithm for Australian feeds that would deliberately target more than the country’s news outlets, whistleblowers said. Facebook had hijacked access to countless vital services for the millions of users across the country as part of its flex, they alleged. Employees would have say that when they tried to point out this an obvious problem was, the Hsenior company officials either issued vague responses or ignored their concerns entirely.
A Facebook employee who worked on the project wrote to the Australian regulator: “It was clear that it was not us who upheld the law, but a blow to civic institutions and emergency services in Australia.
COO Sheryl Sandberg praised the “strategy thinking” and “execution precision,” according to internal emails. CEO Mark Zuckerberg too congratulated the team.
A The Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo about the case: “TThe documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian Government pages from the restrictions in an effort to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation.
“When we were unable to do so as planned due to a technical error, we apologized and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false,” they continued.