Facebook deliberately blocked access to Australian government webpages during the country’s COVID vaccination drive — an underhanded move to punish authorities over a proposed law that required the social network to pay news organizations for online content, according to a report.
The Wall Street Journal cited a company whistleblower who provided documents allegedly proving that Facebook sabotaged access to webpages of hospitals, emergency services, and charities in the midst of a pandemic.
The Post has reached out to Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms Inc., seeking comment. The company gave a statement to the Journal denying that the glitches were intentional.
Facebook said it never aimed to take down Australian government-run pages and that a “technical error” was to blame.
But a Facebook employee denied this, telling the Journal: “It was clear this was not us complying with the law, but a hit on civic institutions and emergency services in Australia.”
According to the Journal, Facebook was seeking to put pressure on the Australian government after parliament voted to institute a law that required online platforms to pay publishers for content.
Facebook responded by deploying an algorithm that was intended to block access to Australian news pages as well as portals that were used to provide key public health services, the Journal reported.
When Facebook employees flagged management over the issue, they were met with a delayed response, according to the Journal.
The tactic appeared to work as the Australian government ended up approving a watered-down version of the law.
“We landed exactly where we wanted to,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of partnerships, wrote to the Australian team in February 2021, according to the Journal.
Facebook founder and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his No. 2, Sheryl Sandberg, also congratulated their Aussie unit, the Journal reported.
Sandberg hailed the team’s “thoughtfulness of the strategy” and “precision of execution.”
Facebook’s strategy to target a broad range of pages that were classified as “news” was adopted in order to avoid breaking Australian law, which bans platforms from allowing links to some publishers while not to others, according to the Journal.
The company also acted preemptively to remove pages because it feared that publishers would go to court in an effort to block it from doing so once the law went into effect, the Journal reported.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told the Journal that there was nothing nefarious about what the company did.
“The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian government pages from restrictions in an effort to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation,” said Stone.
“When we were unable to do so as intended due to a technical error, we apologized and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.”
Other Western countries like Canada and the United States are considering similar laws that would require companies like Facebook and Google to pay publishers for content.
News Corp., the parent company of The Post as well as the Journal, struck a content-sharing deal with Google and Facebook in Australia last year.
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