‘Technical error’ led to removal of critical services rather than sinister tactics, says Meta MD

Following whistleblower allegations last week it had intentionally blocked critical services pages, including government sites and suicide prevention pages during its news ban last year, Meta has rejected the claims, and stated the page restrictions were a result of a ‘technical error’.

Last week, Whistleblower Aid filed a document on behalf of a former Facebook employee with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the United States Department of Justice, in which the person claimed the platform “over blocked” sites as a negotiating tactic to force the hand of the Australian parliament.

Critical services were blocked during Facebook’s five day news ban

The sites blocked included government pages, health and emergency sites, Department of Fire and Emergency Services and Council and Homeless Persons, as well as others.

In a statement to Mumbrella, Meta managing director in Australia and New Zealand, Will Easton said: “We had shared numerous concerns about the proposed laws and worked with the Australian Government in good faith to find a solution, removing news was the last decision we wanted to make. 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. 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.”

Meta’s Easton: It is false to suggest it was intentional

Facebook is still yet to agree to deals with several publishers under the News Media Bargaining Code. It has previously been criticised for its refusal to return to the negotiating table by publishers including Broadsheet Media and The Brag Media, while public broadcaster SBS is one of many still yet to find a deal with the platform. In March, Meta announced the recipients of the first round of funding in its Facebook Australian News Fund.

The block out period lasted a total of five days between 17 February 2021 and 22 February 2021 after Facebook was concerned the bargaining code legislation would have material impacts on its operations and interests in the local market.

In a release provided by Whistleblower Aid, it stated the extent of the sites blocked included: Department of Fire and Emergency Services, the Council on Homeless Persons, the Australian Medical Association, the Sydney Local Health District, Suicide Prevention Australia, the Tasmanian Government, SA Health, Fire and Rescue New South Wales, Safe Steps Family Violence Response Center, 1800Respect, First Nations Media Australia, and a wide range of other cultural, government and health agencies.

As initially reported by the Wall Street Journal, the filed documents claim several Facebook employees raised concerns about the impact of the pages that fell under the algorithm to block sites in Australia. It alleges the concerns only received “minimal or delayed responses from the leaders of the team in charge”.

The legislation was then at the time amended, with Facebook subsequently bringing the news ban to an end, with head of partnerships at Facebook, Campbell Brown then-writing, “we landed exactly where we wanted to”, claiming success over the much-criticized strategy.

In the documents, reported in the WSJ, internal senior figures at Facebook praised the move as helping “secure the best possible outcome” locally.

But according to the whistleblower documents, which first surfaced in the Wall Street Journal, the move was praised internally by senior executives. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said it helped Facebook secure “the best possible outcome in Australia” while chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg believed it had set a new standard of “thoughtfulness” and “precision of execution”.

The Sydney Morning Herald last week reported that Rod Sims, former chair of the ACCC, and key figure in the creation of the bargaining code said the move showed “callous disregard” for Australia, and also stated “it’s amazing to me that [the company] would so deliberately lie.”

Speaking on this week’s Mumbrellacast, CEO of Private Media, Will Hayward said while some publishers have found it more difficult than others, “I actually seem to disagree with most people and think that Google and Facebook have acted with a fair amount of integrity on the issue”.

Private Media, the publisher of Crikey, Smart Company and The Mandarin was one of the first to agree to deals with both Google and Meta (Facebook).



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