Perhaps we’ll never know if Facebook’s surprise decision to cut Australians off from all news sources on its platform was a carefully planned strategic move, or the result of a tantrum in Menlo Park. Either way, Australia woke up to a unilaterally imposed news blackout on Facebook last week that raises important policy questions about democracy, corporate power and access to information. There had been no prior warning from Facebook, no tests—just an algorithmic change.
Not only were News Corp., ABC and other mainstream Australian media shuttered on Facebook’s News Feed, so were services that might not consider themselves to be news: the national meteorological service, the Hobart women’s shelter, Queensland’s public health service (during a pandemic, no less), numerous academic blogs, and even The Betoota Advocate, an Australian satirical website. After an immediate uproar, Facebook has since restored many of them to its platform.
The backdrop to this extraordinary action is a proposed law in Australia, the News Media Bargaining Code, that seeks to force Big Tech platforms to pay publishers for news content.