'Arrogant': PM blasts Facebook shutdown for posing health risk

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·5-min read

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called Facebook "arrogant" and "disappointing" in a terse statement on Thursday afternoon, published on Facebook.

The PM admonished the company over its bungled shutdown of news content in the Australian market which saw many government health and service pages blocked this morning.

Mr Morrison said his government would not be intimidated by the tech giant.

"Facebook's actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing," he said.

The PM threatened that the move would further sour the perception of the social media company among governments around the world.

Senior government ministers were lining up to criticise Facebook today. Source: AAP
Senior government ministers were lining up to criticise Facebook today. Source: AAP

"These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.

"They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it."

Concerns over blocking of important health information

Earlier, Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt accused the tech company of jeopardising the health of Australians as the country begins its coronavirus vaccine rollout.

After blocking the profiles of government health departments, Hunt accused the company of being too concerned about its profits while pulling down information critical to the Australian public.

"It is denying Australians access to fundamental health, mental health and vaccination information," Mr Hunt said in Parliament on Thursday afternoon.

Earlier he told reporters the government was profoundly shocked Facebook would take action "that would effect health and appropriately related sites.”

Mr Hunt said the fact that children's charities had been stripped of their content was "a disgrace", and warned there was a risk misinformation and falsehoods would spread in the gaps created by the news vacuum on Facebook.

Minister for Health Greg Hunt has unleashed on Facebook after it balked at the government attempt to make it pay news publishers. Source: AAP
Minister for Health Greg Hunt has unleashed on Facebook after it balked at the government attempt to make it pay news publishers. Source: AAP

“We understand that ACT health, Queensland health, South Australia Health, Dementia Australia sites, the Kids Cancer Project and Bowel Cancer Australia have all been affected," he chided.

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

Several Aboriginal community-controlled health services had their pages blocked Thursday, with leaders echoing the concern about vital information being removed as the vaccine rollout gets underway.

"Never has our media been more vital than during a global pandemic, especially on the cusp of vaccination rollouts," said Dot West, the chair of First Nations Media Australia, the peak body for Indigenous not-for-profit media.

The move from Facebook came after the government's media bargaining code, which aims to force tech giants to pay news organisations for hosting their content, passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Facebook called out for poor execution

Despite repeated threats in recent months that it would block news on its platform if the law was passed (it still needs to go through the Senate), Facebook gave the government no immediate forewarning about its decision this morning.

“[Facebook] did what they said they were going to do, that bit shouldn't be a surprise," says Associate Professor Rob Nicholls, an expert in competition law and policy at UNSW Business School.

"The biggest surprise has been how poor the implementation has been.

"It's an algorithmic-driven business, and if you can't write an algo that says what's news and what's not, that's pretty poor," he told Yahoo News Australia.

Some industry observers have been critical of the proposed code, such as UNSW economics professor Richard Holden who on Thursday labelled it "idiotic" and maybe "the worst public policy disaster in Australian history".

However Prof Nicholls believes there is merit in the proposal, likening it to other mandatory codes in existence which seek to address power imbalances, such as the franchise business industry.

"It is consistent with other policies," he said.

Facebook's actions 'heavy-handed'

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

After outcry from the public and members of the Australian government, a majority of the pages were unblocked on Thursday afternoon.

Facebook claimed it was left with no choice but to block news providers, 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 company spokesman said.

"However, we will reverse any pages that are inadvertently impacted."

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was also quick to criticise, saying the social media giant has harmed its brand in Australia.

"Facebook's actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia," he told reporters.

"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."

Facebook pulled down a wide range of pages, including the BoM and health services. Source: Getty
Facebook pulled down a wide range of pages, including the BoM and health services. Source: Getty

The Australian government, at the behest of large media companies like News Corp Australia and Nine, is not backing down over the bargaining code.

"The Morrison government's position is very clear – we will legislate this code," Frydenberg said, claiming the news shutdown confirmed the company's immense market power.

"These digital giants loom very, very large in our economy and on the digital landscape."

with AAP

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