Treasurer lashes heavy-handed Facebook ban

·3-min read

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has lashed Facebook for its heavy-handed censorship of Australian news and information.

The social media giant has banned access to news pages across Australia in response to a proposed media bargaining code.

Facebook also blocked important government pages including the weather bureau, health departments and police agencies, along with charities and community groups.

"Facebook's actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia," Mr Frydenberg told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.

"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."

Health Minister Greg Hunt said children's charities being stripped of their content was a disgrace, and warned there was a risk misinformation would spread in the gaps created by Facebook.

"Forget the money, start growing up and making sure that you are about community and safety above all else," he appealed to the company.

Facebook claimed it was left with no choice, arguing the 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."

Facebook gave the treasurer no notice of the Australian news ban.

Mr Frydenberg is not backing down over the media bargaining code.

"The Morrison government's position is very clear - we will legislate this code," he said.

Mr Frydenberg said the Facebook news shutdown confirmed the company'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.

The company first threatened to ban news for Australians in August and repeated the ultimatum before a Senate inquiry in January.

The ban will restrict 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.

Opposition frontbencher Mark Dreyfus is demanding the government resolve the Facebook dispute.

"Facebook is going to dramatically alter the feed that Australians get and restrict the flow of news to Australians, the flow of real public-interest journalism and real news to Australians on Facebook," he said.

"The question is one for the government to answer instead of patting yourselves on the back. Tell Australians what's going on with Facebook. It's something that 18 million or so Australians are affected by."

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 the UK.

No other news publisher has reached a single deal with Google across multiple countries.

The media bargaining code is before the Senate after clearing the lower house.