Facebook took down Australian government pages to gain leverage as its parliament was considering harsh new tech laws, whistleblowers say

Facebook took down Australian government pages to gain leverage as its parliament was considering harsh new tech laws, whistleblowers say
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, the parent company of Facebook.Senate Judiciary Committee via REUTERS
  • Facebook deliberately blocked access to Australian government pages last year, whistleblowers said, per the WSJ.
  • They say the firm wanted to pressure Australia as lawmakers discussed making tech giants pay to host news articles.

Facebook deliberately took down a number of Australian government pages in a bid to pressure the country as its lawmakers discussed a law that would make tech giants pay to host news articles, according to whistleblower accounts seen by The Wall Street Journal.

In February 2021, Facebook blocked access to news content for users in Australia after the government began discussing a law that would make tech companies, like Facebook, pay to host news content.

However, the company also took down pages belonging to hospitals, emergency services, weather services, and charities. Among those affected were the Children's Cancer Institute, Queensland Health, Doctors Without Borders in Australia, and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services for Western Australia, The Journal and reports at the time said.

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Though Facebook said at the time that the fallout was "inadvertent," whistleblowers said the move was a deliberate step to try and gain leverage over Australian authorities discussing the new law, The Journal reported.

The whistleblowers' accounts, along with internal Facebook documents, have been submitted to the US Department of Justice and the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, The Journal reported.


"It was clear this was not us complying with the law, but a hit on civic institutions and emergency services in Australia," a Facebook employee who worked on the project told The Journal.

A Facebook spokesperson told Insider: "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."

According to documents and people familiar with the case, Facebook created and imposed a filtering algorithm that it knew would affect more pages than just news outlets, The Journal reported.

Executives knew the process was so vague that it would hit government pages, and didn't want to try to define what news was as it feared it would breach the law, people familiar with Facebook's thinking told The Journal.

Facebook employees attempted to point out the issue to the leaders of the team overseeing the project, but were met with a lackluster response or none at all, The Journal added.


Australia's parliament ultimately passed an amended version of the law which hit Facebook less hard than the original proposal.

"We landed exactly where we wanted to," Campbell Brown, Facebook's head of partnerships, wrote in an internal email after the altered bill was passed, The Journal reported.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also praised the "thoughtfulness of the strategy" and "precision of execution," The Journal said.