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Facebook blocks media in Australia, government cries out for censorship

In protest against an Australian government bill, Facebook has restricted access to media content in the country. The government considers this measure “useless and brutal” but Facebook does not intend to give in.

The Australian government reacted angrily Thursday to the blocking of many news content by Facebook in the country, in retaliation against a bill that intends to force the social network to remunerate the media.

As of Thursday morning, Australian Facebook users could no longer view news links from local or international media and people living overseas no longer had access to Australian news.

Australian Finance Minister Josh Frydenberg called Facebook’s move “unnecessary, brutal” which he said would “damage its reputation here in Australia”. He said his government remains “resolutely determined” to implement its bill to force platforms to pay media outlets for resuming their content.

This project was adopted last week by the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate.

“What today’s events confirm for all Australians is the dominance of these giants in our economy and the digital landscape,” he added, just hours after he claimed , on Twitter, having had a “constructive discussion” with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Several official Facebook pages of emergency services used to alert the population in the event of bushfires, cyclones or epidemics have ceased to function.

“A disturbing turn”

A Facebook spokesperson said official government pages “should not be affected” by the retaliatory measures, and promised the reinstatement of any pages that were “inadvertently affected”.

Other sites in the country were also affected by this measure and their operation returned to normal over the hours. Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson called the blocking – which also impacted non-governmental organisations, as well as HRW’s own Facebook page – a “worrying and dangerous turn”.

“Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the middle of the night is unacceptable,” she said.

The Australian government as well as press groups have expressed concern about a possible proliferation of false information. Several Facebook pages at the origin of conspiracy theories and misinformation were not affected by this measure.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher urged Facebook to think “carefully” about blocking the pages of organizations that employ professional journalists with editorial policies and processes for verifying information. Facebook said it had no choice but to implement this information blocking.

“The bill very much misunderstands the relationship between our platform and the publishers who use it to share news content,” said William Easton, Facebook’s head of Australia and New Zealand. “It presents us with a difficult choice: try to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. It is with a heavy heart that we choose this last resort,” he said.

Facebook’s reaction contrasts with that of Google, which agreed on Wednesday to pay “significant sums” in return for the content of the News Corp press group. by Rupert Murdoch.

This is the first contract of this type signed by a large press group. News Corp. was instrumental in getting Australia’s conservative government to crack down on the tech giants. According to William Easton, Facebook has argued with Australian officials that “the exchange between Facebook and publishers is in favor of the latter” and generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for Australian news groups.

“Unfortunately, this legislation does not do that. Rather, it seeks to penalize Facebook for content that it has not picked up or requested,” he said.

The Australian initiative is widely followed around the world, at a time when the media is suffering in a digital economy where advertising revenues are increasingly captured by large technology firms.

According to the Australian competition authorities, Google captures 53% of advertising expenditure in the country and Facebook 28%, with other market players, including press companies, sharing the meager remains, which prove insufficient to finance journalism. The media crisis has been compounded by the pandemic-related economic collapse. In Australia, dozens of newspapers have closed and hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs.

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