Facebook, Struggling to Combat Far-Right Extremism, Threatens to Block News From Platform in Australia

Cornered by new legislation, Facebook has threatened to block anyone in Australia from sharing local and international news on its platforms.

The move, which comes in response to a proposed law that will force the social network to pay media organizations for their journalistic content, would result in "publishers and people in Australia" being unable to post news to Facebook and Instagram.

As the Mark Zuckerberg-led platform goes on the legal offensive, critics noted Facebook was quick to act when facing regulation that could see it out-of-pocket, but has failed to properly block hate speech, far-right conspiracies and extremist groups.

"Facebook: stopping QAnon and far-right content is too hard. Also Facebook: removing all Australian news content is entirely possible," tweeted Nick Evershed, who is a data and interactives editor for Guardian Australia, in response to Facebook's threat.

On August 19, Facebook announced it had removed more than 790 groups, 100 pages and 1,500 ads tied to QAnon, a vast and unfounded political conspiracy theory that has existed online for years and is often centered around President Donald Trump.

"While we will allow people to post content that supports these movements and groups, so long as they do not otherwise violate our content policies, we will restrict their ability to organize on our platform," Facebook said in a blog post at the time.

Last week, a Kenosha militia Facebook event remained online despite being reported hundreds of times by Facebook's users. During an event in the real world, a 17-year-old was accused of fatally shooting two protesters.

Facebook removed the militia group's page and event listing the day after the shooting, with Zuckerberg calling the oversight an "operational mistake" during a staff Q&A. The platform has recently faced a widespread ad boycott over its hate speech policies, with civil rights groups alleging that it is failing to stop the spread of malicious content.

Facebook: stopping qanon and far-right content is too hard
Also Facebook: removing all Australian news content is entirely possible

— Nick Evershed (@NickEvershed) September 1, 2020

The Australia proposals, yet to be approved by the government, could make Facebook and Google pay media organizations in royalties.

The drafts are spearheaded by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which has said the regulation aims to "address bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms."

Facebook's response has been firm, complaining it would "force Facebook to pay news organizations for content that the publishers voluntarily place on our platforms."

Will Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia & New Zealand, wrote: "Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram.

"This is not our first choice—it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia's news and media sector," he added, directly cited in Facebook's own spin.

Legal experts and academics have questioned the viability of Facebook's approach, with some noting it could lead to the surfacing of fringe news sources.

"If Facebook sticks to its claims, it would need to implement a blanket ban on Australian news media businesses," explained Rob Nicholls, an associate professor in business law at the UNSW Business School, writing for The Conversation.

"This proposition isn't compelling because it means no news at all. And then there's the issue of fringe news and information sources," he continued.

"You could argue citizen journalists and amateur news content creators aren't media businesses, so you'll still have them—but they won't have the checks and balances in place required by the media industry. Sources such as QAnon actively and deliberately spread misinformation and will also remain. These sources could cause irreparable damage if they go unchecked or without any reliable rebuttal," Nicholls added.

Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer of media at Australia's Swinburne University, tweeted it appeared the "humble little ACCC has hit a nerve" with the U.S. social networking giant.

Further thought: Google has stopped short of cutting news content. They’ve protested but haven’t threatened that.

Consequently, they might find those 8.3 million Australians (fully one third of us get our news from Facebook) Google news now rather than finding it on Facebook.

— Belinda Barnet (@manjusrii) September 1, 2020

"They are so afraid of paying for news content that they're prepared to damage their own business to avoid it," Barnet noted in a Twitter thread.

The response from Australian lawmakers indicated they did not appreciate Facebook's response. ACCC Chair Rod Sims said it was "ill-timed and misconceived."

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg went further, saying: "We don't respond to coercion or heavy-handed threats wherever they come from. Our reforms to digital platforms are world-leading and following [an] 18-month inquiry by the ACCC. These reforms will help to create a more sustainable media landscape and see payment for original content."

Based on screenshots shared on Twitter today, a Facebook notification warning of an update to its terms had been sent to users who are not based in Australia.

It said that from October 1, terms will be altered to say it can restrict access to content, services or information if the social network determines that doing so "is reasonably necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook."

Facebook says they will remove or restrict access to content if leaving it up would cause regulatory risk for them.
I just got this notification in CA, so it’s not just an Australia news thing.
Tell me again how much Zuckerberg cares about free speech? pic.twitter.com/aav4f9VCRV

— Sarah Frier (@sarahfrier) September 1, 2020

In response to a question about the technical feasibility of blocking users in a country from sharing news, Facebook said more information is set to be released.

In a statement via email, a spokesperson said: "We'll provide specific details soon on how we plan to remove news content on Facebook in Australia.

"We are committed to being transparent and accountable about our efforts to enforce our policies. We want people to be able to express themselves freely and share different perspectives. This includes perspectives that may be controversial to others.

"However, we have policies in place to remove content that breaches or violates these policies, including hate speech. We're working steadily to ensure we have the best possible technical solution to block news content in Australia. We're also continuing to build up our tools and systems to proactively detect and action hate speech.

"Ensuring that we get both of these right is important and that's why we are investing in the technology, policies and procedures to do this as effectively as possible."

Update 9/1/20: This article was updated with a comment from Facebook.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about the new Facebook News feature at the Paley Center For Media on October 25, 2019 in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty