As wildfires blazed across Australia and a pandemic spiraled out of control, Facebook deliberately restricted access to pages providing emergency services, whistleblowers claim, in a bid to gain leverage over pending government regulation there.
Documents and testimony filed with Australian and U.S. regulators and recently published by the Wall Street Journal paint a damning picture of the company, alleging it intentionally sowed chaos last year in response to a proposed Australian law that would force Facebook to compensate media outlets for using their content.
Instead of complying with the proposal, Facebook banned users in Australia from sharing or reading news articles. At the same time, the company also abruptly blocked an additional 17,000 non-media pages, WSJ reports.
Those 17,000 pages included hospitals and fire departments across the country, suicide hotlines, government services and charities and nonprofits like Mission Australia and the Hobart Women’s Shelter, which provide emergency medical and domestic violence services.
A spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, told HuffPost the massive ban was one big mistake “due to a technical error,” and that Facebook worked to rectify the situation immediately. “Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false,” the company said.
But emails leaked in the documents undercut that narrative.
Top Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, praised the tactic. Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, called it “genius.”
And internal messages from Facebook employees at the time flagging the error went unheeded for days. It wasn’t until after Facebook reached a deal with the Australian government watering down the proposal that the platform reinstated all of the pages.
Former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission head Rod Sims, who led the reform effort, told the Australian Financial Review the allegations may be enough to revive the country’s regulatory push.
“If what the whistleblower is saying is true,” he said, “then Facebook were clearly putting lives at risk, deliberately, which is pretty amazing, and does not reflect well on Facebook.”
Chris Cooper, the executive director of Reset Australia, a nonprofit policy group that tracks digital threats to democracy, was a bit more blunt.
“Facebook had almost seven months to prepare for their news ban, and they made a calculated decision to turn off the primary communications channel for fire services during bushfire season, public hospitals in a pandemic, candidates in the middle of an election, and even suicide hotlines,” he said in a statement.
“It wasn’t their incompetence that saw those pages shut down, it was intentional, calculated malice.”
“They chose to endanger public safety as a negotiating tactic,” he continued. “They threatened community safety to extort policy changes. This was nothing less than a direct assault on our democratic process.”