The US-based company says it has restricted news content from being read and shared in its news feed, drawing a line in the sand against a proposed Australian law that would require it and Google to pay the country's news publishers for journalism.

International users outside Australia also cannot share Australian news on Facebook.
International users outside Australia also cannot share Australian news on Facebook. (Reuters)

Facebook has blocked Australians from viewing and sharing news on the platform because of proposed laws in the country to make digital giants pay for journalism, angering Canberra that called the news blackout "heavy-handed". 

Australian publishers can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts can't be viewed or shared by Australian audiences, the US-based company said in a statement on Wednesday.

Australian users cannot share Australian or international news.

International users outside Australia also cannot share Australian news.

"Facebook was wrong. Facebook's actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Thursday. 

Proposed laws 

Faceook's announcement comes a day after Frydenberg described as "very promising" negotiations between Facebook and Google with Australian media companies.

The Australian Parliament is debating proposed laws that would make the two platforms strike deals to pay for Australian news.

Both platforms have condemned the proposed laws as unworkable. Google has also threatened to remove its search engine from the country. 

"The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content," said Facebook's manager for Australia and New Zealand, William Easton.

"It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter."

Law seeks to 'penalise Facebook'

Easton said Facebook has argued to Australian officials that "the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favour of the publishers," and generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for the media organisations.

"We've long worked toward rules that would encourage innovation and collaboration between digital platforms and news organisations," Easton said.

"Unfortunately this legislation does not do that. Instead, it seeks to penalise Facebook for content it didn't take or ask for."

'Cute cats and conspiracy theories'

Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute's Center for Responsible Technology think tank, said Facebook's decision "will make it a weaker social network."

"Facebook actions mean the company's failures in privacy, disinformation, and data protection will require a bigger push for stronger government regulation," Lewis said. 

"Without fact-based news to anchor it, Facebook will become little more than cute cats and conspiracy theories." 

Emergency services hit by ban

Several Australian emergency services were hit by Facebook's local ban on news content, with pages that warn the public about Covid outbreaks, bushfires and cyclones rendered blank.

Fire, health, and meteorological services around the country saw problems with their Facebook pages, amid several serious public emergencies. 

Environment Minister Sussan Ley confirmed the government's Bureau of Meteorology's page "has been impacted by the sudden Facebook news content restrictions", urging people to visit the website instead.

This happened as the bureau issued a series of flash flooding warnings for parts of Queensland state after heavy rainfall overnight.

The Western Australia fire department's Facebook page was also wiped clean as the state braced for "catastrophic fire danger" conditions.

Western Australian MP Madeleine King described the situation as "Incredible. Unbelievable. Unacceptable" and there were mounting calls for Facebook to quickly fix the situation.

Health departments affected 

At least three state health departments, which issue regular updates on the coronavirus pandemic to hundreds of thousands of Australians, were also affected.

Several government accounts in the Australian Capital Territory – which incorporates the national capital Canberra – were affected, along with its health department.

"The ACT Government account is verified by Facebook and we have contacted them to rectify the situation," a spokesperson said.

"The ACT Health Facebook page, in particular, is an important channel for distributing information about the Covid-19 situation."

The national sexual assault and domestic violence service, some charities, and even Facebook's own page also appeared blank to users in Australia.

Source: AFP