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Facebook blocks Australia pages in dispute over proposed law

CANBERRA, Australia: Facebook has blocked Australian users of its platform from reading and sharing local and international news, stepping up its campaign against government plans to force technology giants to pay publishers for their news content.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook said in a blog post announcing the move.

“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.”

Australia is trying to get technology companies, including Facebook and Google, to pay for the news that is widely shared on their sites, as the advertising revenue that once supported publishers evaporates. The law would force them to strike deals with media companies or have fees set for them.

Google has threatened to withdraw its search services from Australia, but at the same time has also started to secure agreements on revenue-sharing with publishers.

Facebook insists its relationship with the news industry is fundamentally different.

“Publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue,” it said, noting that in 2020 the platform generated 5.1 billion referrals that earned about 407 million Australian dollars ($315m) for the publishers.

The platform claimed that what it described as a “value exchange” worked in favour of the publishers.

Facebook’s sudden move to block news content sparked outrage, as some government and emergency response pages, including health authorities, fire services and the police also went dark. Facebook’s own page was also affected.

Australia Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who earlier said he had had a “constructive discussion” with Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg on the law, condemned the platform’s move.

“Facebook was wrong,” he told reporters. “Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia.”

Facebook-watchers and media analysts accused the company, which made a net profit of $29.2bn in 2020, of bullying.

“Facebook’s actions today can best be understood as an aggressive lobbying effort,” American journalist Judd Legum wrote on Twitter. “It’s showing the Australian government it’s willing to follow through with the ban. Tough to square this bare-knuckled approach with the company’s supposed commitment to free speech.”

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