Australia

‘Irresponsible’: The Facebook news ban has blocked official health information and domestic violence services

Facebook has been criticised as “irresponsible” and “shameful” after its Australian news ban also impacted crucial sources of health information, the weather bureau, and domestic violence services. 

Publishers and users in Australia are being prevented from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content, Facebook announced on Thursday, in response to the federal government’s proposed legislation to force internet platforms to pay for news content.

But a slew of non-media organisations on the network were also hit by the ban, including critical health, weather and fire services.

Even Facebook’s own page appeared to have been restricted as part of the crackdown.

How Facebook’s page appeared to viewers in Australia on Thursday morning, 18 February.

SBS News

Official government services that were impacted included the Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, Western Sydney Health, South Australia Health, ACT Health, Queensland Health and even the ACT and Tasmanian Governments.

Several of the pages, including those of the BoM, WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, South Australia Health, Queensland Health and ACT Health, were restored later on Thursday.

How the BoM's Facebook page appeared to viewers in Australia on Thursday morning, 18 February.

How the BoM’s Facebook page appeared to viewers in Australia on Thursday morning, 18 February.

SBS News

Australian Unions also reported its page was at one stage blocked from posting. Union Aid Abroad, which describes itself as the global justice arm of Australia’s union movement, said it had been blocked in a “shameful” move by Facebook. 

Anti-domestic violence groups including the national sexual assault, domestic family violence counselling service 1800Respect and Queensland’s DV Connect were also stripped of posts for at least part of Thursday.

Social services groups like Mission Australia and Council to Homeless Persons were also restricted, in a move described as “outrageous”.

Facebook was also slammed as “irresponsible” by federal politicians including Labor’s Mark Butler and Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

In a statement to SBS News, Facebook said it would reverse the ban on pages “inadvertently impacted” but that it was forced to take a “broad definition” of what constituted news as part of the draft media bargaining laws.

“Government Pages should not be impacted by today’s announcement,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to SBS News.

“The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content. As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted. However, we will reverse any Pages that are inadvertently impacted.” 

James Meesea, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, said Facebook could be reacting to what’s defined in the draft laws.

“Facebook may well be putting it to government that there are, you know, there’s kind of a broad definition of news that may well be problematic for them to put into practice so this could be very much applied … based on their interpretation, if they interpret what the code is asking them to do, this is what it would look like,” he told SBS News.

“What it really points to is the difficulty in saying, you know, this is news and this is not news and when you start drawing out the stitch and you say well you know is the weather news, is student journalism news, is that news that should be accounted for?”

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