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Whistleblower complaints shed light on Facebook’s 2021 content ban in Australia

On February 17, 2021, Facebook banned users of the social media platform from reading or sharing news articles. The ban followed media negotiation laws proposed by the Australian government at the time: when the ban came into force, the proposed laws had already passed the House of Representatives, according to a February 18 report. . article Posted in The Sydney Morning Herald Last year. The proposed laws sought to “force social media companies to pay media outlets for the use of their content”.

The ban targeted the media and made “content from news sites’ Facebook pages” like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australianand ABC “not available to users”, the Sydney Morning Herald article reports. However, according to a article published by The Guardian at the time, “the block also affected a number of non-informative site pages, including some state health services, the Western Australia Fire and Emergency Services page”, union pages and pages from “several charities, including family victim support”. violence.”

Now complaints from whistleblowers have shed light on the 2021 ban: while Facebook called the banning of unrelated pages “unintentional”, company documents as well as complaints from whistleblowers “allege the social media giant deliberately created an overly broad network and sloppy process to take down pages”, The Wall Street Journal reports. This process led to “Australian government and health service” Facebook pages being caught in the crosshairs of the ban, “just as the country was rolling out Covid vaccinations”, the article said.

The complaint was filed with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) by Whistleblower Aid “on behalf of anonymous former employees of Facebook”, according to the organization. Press release. Whistleblowers and Facebook documents allege the purpose of the ban, which lasted five days, “was to exert maximum bargaining power over the Australian Parliament” as it votes on the aforementioned legislation “which would require platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay media for content,” The Wall Street Journal reports. The Australian Parliament ended up amending the bill “to the extent that, a year after it was passed, its most onerous provisions have not applied to Facebook or its parent company, Metaplatforms Inc.”

Facebook documents and “people familiar with the matter” indicate that although Facebook said the implementation of the ban was intended to affect only news outlets, “the company deployed an algorithm to decide which pages to remove that she knew would definitely affect more than editors. Additionally, the company did not notify “affected pages in advance that they would be blocked or provide a system for them to appeal once they were blocked.”

According to the article, “[t]The documents also show that several Facebook employees tried to sound the alarm about the impact and offer possible solutions, only to receive minimal or delayed response from the leaders of the team in charge. The article includes excerpts from emails sent by Facebook executives such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, CEO Sheryl Sandberg and Head of Partnerships Campbell Brown, who praised the fact that the proposed law has amended and adopted. An email from Sandberg highlighted “strategy precision” and “execution precision.”

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone denied that Facebook strategically took down non-news pages in Australia during the ban. “The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian Government pages from the restrictions in an effort to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation,” Stone said. “When we were unable to do so as planned due to a technical error, we apologized and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.

But according to The Wall Street Journal“[p]People familiar with Facebook’s thinking said executives knew its process for classifying information for removal of pages was so broad it would likely hit government and other social service pages. The whistleblowers in the case “said the intent of the project – as a negotiation tactic – was unambiguous to those working on it”. An employee who worked on the project and is one of the whistleblowers represented by Whistleblower Aid said: ‘It was clear that it was not us who upheld the law, but a blow to civic institutions and to emergency services in Australia.” The organization’s founder, John Tye, alleges in the complaints that there was “a criminal conspiracy to obtain a thing of value, namely, favorable regulatory treatment.”

Shortly after the 2021 ban was put in place, Facebook pages for services such as “the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, the Homeless Council, the Australian Medical Association, the Sydney Local Health District, Suicide Prevention Australia, Government of Tasmania, SA According to press release from Whistleblower Aid, Health, Fire and Rescue New South Wales, Safe Steps Family Violence Response Center” and other “cultural bodies, government and health” have been affected.

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Shona Yang, who manages content for Mission Australia, “a charity that provides housing and mental health services, among other things.” Yang said the ban had an impact on how the organization stayed in touch with clients, as Mission Australia uses Facebook messages and private Facebook groups to carry out its work and connect with clients. During the ban, Yang said Mission Australia had to resort to other forms of social media to let customers know “how they can stay in touch”. “The organization’s media agency has reported the issue to Facebook,” the article said.

According to the article, some Facebook employees “were alarmed by the blocking of pages that shouldn’t have been blocked and reported the issue through Facebook’s internal tool which is used to track issues and their solutions.” . But the article reports that instead of stopping the banning process, the company “accelerated the removal, expanding the use of the algorithm from 50% to 100% of all Australian users over the next few hours. “. Stone explained that Facebook was afraid of “legal actions” to justify the “rapid rollout,” the article said.

“The whistleblower documents show that Facebook tried to exclude government and education pages. But people familiar with Facebook’s response said some of those lists malfunctioned during the rollout, while other whitelists did not cover enough pages to prevent widespread inappropriate blocking,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

According to the article, “Facebook and Australian officials reached a handshake agreement to amend the bill” on February 23. One change was the addition of language “which allowed the Australian Treasurer to weigh private agreements between publishers and platforms before ‘designating’ a platform, a label which would require him to participate in the negotiation process sanctioned by the government with publishers that could end in binding final offer arbitration.The version of the law passed differed from the previous version, which “automatically subjected platforms like Facebook to the negotiation process, which the platforms considered impractical and onerous”.

Internal documents show that “Facebook’s first action after the handshake agreement was reached was to manually unblock the Australian national government page,” the article said.

“Facebook has tremendous power over how information is divided,” Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid, said in the press release. “In this case, they used that power in a way that threatened public safety during fire season and in the midst of a global pandemic to compel the Australian Parliament to pass favorable legislation. This was not just an example of a corporate actor behaving recklessly; Facebook intentionally put lives at risk to protect its bottom line,” Liu said.

Lily The Wall Street Journal article here.

Read the Whistleblower Aid press release here.

Read more Facebook whistleblower news at WNN.

Read more international whistleblower news at WNN.