Australian media companies had their Facebook pages stripped of all content. Also wiped were Facebook pages run by science organizations, hospital, charities and even domestic violence support groups. A Facebook executive apologized for this on Friday, saying it was inadvertent.
In Western Australia, bush fires and floods were both of concern, yet two popular sources of emergency warnings saw their content removed — the Facebook page operated by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services WA, and that run by the public broadcaster ABC Radio Perth. The former was reinstated after a few hours; the latter is still wiped.
Of course, the emergency warnings were available elsewhere. The problem is that many Australians have developed the habit of using Facebook as their access point to news and information.
Perhaps this was the wake-up call we needed — and one the world needs, too.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is calling on other world leaders to stand in Australia’s corner. He has already spoken to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, and has plans to reach out to others. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also spoke to Canadian Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on the matter this week.
In a post on his own Facebook page, Morrison noted how Facebook had cut access to “essential information services on health and emergency services.” Calling the actions arrogant and disappointing, he said they would “only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”
At issue is a new bargaining code that will require Google and Facebook to negotiate with media companies to pay for the content that draws people to their sites. Google, after making its own threat to remove its search engine from Australia, this week began a process of capitulation, making deals with several local providers. Facebook, which argues it drives traffic to media sites when news links are shared on the platform, instead decided to flex its muscles, no doubt concerned Australia’s new laws might be copied elsewhere.
Will the intimidation work? Probably not. Australia has a good record when it comes to standing up to bullying.
Big Tobacco fought hard when Australia introduced plain packaging of cigarettes in 2012. The government at the time fought the tobacco companies right up to Australia’s High Court, and the innovation is now copied in around 20 other countries.
In 2018, the retail giant Amazon also threatened to stop supplying customers in Australia from its U.S. and other international stores after the Australian government demanded it collect sales tax on purchases destined for Down Under. It backflipped within months. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
And then there’s China, which has attempted to punish Australia over various Australian innovations, including laws designed to limit Chinese covert activities. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and the dispute has seen restrictions on Australian exports, including barley, beef, wine, cotton and coal. The pain is real and continuing, but the government has remained defiant.
In all these disputes, Australia has had the advantage of politicians with an ability, just occasionally, to reach across the aisle. In both the dispute with China and with the tech giants, the opposition Labor Party has backed the government.
Has Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg just kicked the most monumental own goal? I suspect so.
For those who have long argued that Facebook is too powerful, too ubiquitous and too bellicose when it comes to regulation, Zuckerberg has just proved them right.
New technology often enjoys a honeymoon period. In the 1770s, a similar dynamic occurred during Britain’s Industrial Revolution, with mills operating free of rules protecting either workers or the environment. And in the mid-20th century, in a fizz of enthusiasm, we allowed the automobile to remake our world, filling the air with gasoline fumes and the inner cities with freeways.
Then, always, comes the moment of reform. A Ruskin or a Dickens campaigns for factory reform; a Ralph Nader demands safer cars.
It’s now the turn of Big Tech to be bent to the human will. We need to keep the good and dump the bad. We need to demand it pays its way.
And the world shouldn’t let plucky Australia stand on its own. Consider this an urgent friend request.