When Facebook blocked hundreds of Australian emergency services and government pages during the company’s negotiation with the federal government last year it was not an accident, but rather a deliberate negotiating tactic, company whistleblowers have alleged.
Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, has strenuously denied the claims.
US-based legal organisation Whistleblower Aid said on Friday it had filed a disclosure with the US Department of Justice and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on behalf of former Facebook employees alleging that Facebook had deliberately over-blocked pages as a means of negotiating a better outcome in the negotiations over legislation to force Meta to pay Australian media companies for news content.
The allegations were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Whistleblower Aid also represented Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
On 17 February, 2021, Facebook blocked all news on its platform in Australia, including information, government, health and emergency services pages such as Department of Fire and Emergency Services, the Council on Homeless Persons, the Australian Medical Association, the Sydney Local Health District, Suicide Prevention Australia, the Tasmanian Government, SA Health, Fire and Rescue New South Wales and, 1800Respect.
Facebook at the time was claiming the legislation would create an unworkable precedent, but said the blocking of government pages was inadvertent.
The action forced the federal government back to the negotiating table, and reached a compromise in the legislation stating that Facebook and Google would not be designated as platforms covered by the code if the companies could demonstrate they had successfully negotiated payment deals with media companies in Australia.
A Meta spokesperson denied the blocking of Australian government pages was deliberate.
“The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian government pages from restrictions in an effort to minimise the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation,” the spokesperson said.
“When we were unable to do so as intended due to a technical error, we apologised and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.”
The pages were restored on 22 February 2021, with the remainder coming back online after the legislation passed.
To date since the legislation passed, both companies have not been designated under the code, after dozens of deals were negotiated with local media companies, including Guardian Australia.
According to the whistleblowers, Facebook had a special “ACCC response team” that “deflected or neutralised” other Facebook employees’ attempts to fix the over-blocking during the negotiations.
The whistleblowers also allege that Facebook did not follow the standard process to prevent over-blocking before the action, such as using lists of sensitive accounts not to block, and there was no formal appeals process.
Leaked emails published in WSJ, purport to show that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and head of news partnerships Campbell Brown congratulated the team responsible for the takedown. According to the report, Brown stated it “landed just where [we] wanted,” while Zuckerberg said the best possible outcome had been achieved, and Sandberg said the strategy “set a new high standard”.
“Facebook lied not just to the public but to their own employees, many of whom worked tirelessly to propose solutions to the over-blocking problems we now realise were created by Facebook itself – solutions that were ignored or brushed aside,” Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid alleged.
The Australian communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said the legislation was working as intended, and had kicked off moves for similar legislation in other parts of the world.
“Google has entered into commercial deals with at least 19 news organisations, and Facebook with 11. Public reporting suggests that the monetary value of these agreements exceeds $150m per annum,” he said.
“If Facebook executives want to portray having to pay out tens of millions of dollars as a win, I’ll leave it to them, merely remarking that it would be a novel use of that word.”
Andrew Bakaj, who is representing the whistleblowers, said when Facebook’s interests were threatened, “Facebook didn’t hesitate to squeeze. Hard”.
Rachel Chappell from North Shore Mums, one of the pages that was blocked, told Guardian Australia it was “very frustrating” to hear it was an alleged deliberate negotiating tactic by Facebook.
“It caused a huge amount of stress to business owners, and ultimately really made us question the morals of Facebook,” she said. “They behaved like bullies, and showed a complete lack of respect for page and group owners who provide content which brings users to their platform.
“Not only have I spent thousands of dollars on advertising campaigns with Facebook over the years, I’ve also created a page and group that sees thousands of Sydney mums spend more time on their platform – which they ultimately profit from. It’s disrespectful, and has definitely lowered my trust in them.”
Chappell said since the block, she’s shifted her marketing spend to other platforms, including Google Ad Words.
The ACCC confirmed it had received the whistleblower documents.