The federal government fears Facebook’s sudden blackout of Australian news sites may threaten the successful national rollout of the COVID vaccine, which is due to begin within days.
The gap left by the social media giant’s black ban might be filled by less reliable information, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said, leaving Australians vulnerable to lies and conspiracy theories.
In Question Time in Parliament on Thursday, Mr Hunt described the blackout as an abuse of Facebook’s power that was unacceptable in a democracy.
“A major global corporation has taken a decision that is denying Australians access to fundamental health, mental health and vaccination information,” he said.
It was Mr Hunt’s second blast for the social media giant. Earlier, he urged it to reconsider the ban.
“You may be in it for the money, but the rest of us are in it for safety, protection and responsibility,” he said.
“This is the moment, to return to your origins. Where you were meant to be, as a company, focused on community, engagement, not on the money. Forget the money, start growing up and making sure that you are about community and safety above all else.”
Australia’s virus vaccination program will begin on Monday with front-line healthcare workers, border and quarantine workers, and people living and working in residential aged care and disability care settings.
Facebook abruptly banned access to news pages across Australia on Thursday in response to the Coalition’s proposed media bargaining code.
It also blocked scores of important government pages, including the weather bureau, health departments and police agencies, along with charities and community groups and other public information.
While many of those were restored by the afternoon, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg remained furious about Facebook’s “heavy-handed” censorship of Australian news and information.
“Facebook’s actions were unnecessary … and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” he said in Canberra.
“Their decision to block Australians’ access to government sites – be they about support through the pandemic, mental health, emergency services, the Bureau of Meteorology – were completely unrelated to the media code.”
Mr Frydenberg said the blackout led to concerns Australians would find it more difficult to access credible information.
Facebook claimed it was left with no choice, arguing the federal government’s bargaining code was poorly worded.
“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 spokesman said.
“However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted.”
The government intends to push on with its code. Legislation has passed the lower house and is before the Senate.
“The Morrison government’s position is very clear – we will legislate this code,” Mr Frydenberg said.
He said the news shutdown confirmed Facebook’s immense market power.
“These digital giants loom very, very large in our economy and on the digital landscape.”
Facebook’s ban on Australian news is not unexpected. It first threatened a ban in August and repeated the ultimatum before a Senate inquiry in January.
The ban restricts Australian users and publishers from viewing or sharing domestic and international news.
Overseas users will be unable to access Australian news.
Labor supports the media bargaining code but has criticised the government for its handling of negotiations with the tech companies.
As Facebook restricts the sharing of news, Google is striking deals in Australia to pay for journalism.
News Corp has become the latest publisher to sign an agreement with Google.
The internet giant has already struck deals with Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment, and is in talks with public broadcasters ABC and SBS, as well as Guardian Australia.
The three-year Google deal with News Corp goes beyond the Australian market, extending to the publisher’s titles in America and Britain.
No other news publisher has reached a single deal with Google across multiple countries.