Whistleblowers allege Facebook deliberately used the overzealous blocking system that shut down Australian emergency services pages last year as a negotiating tactic.
Rewinding back to last year when news services were removed from Facebook and saw pages belonging to the likes of hospitals and charities no longer available on the social media site.
The social network moved to block all news outlets in Australia over a row about paying news providers.
It was alleged Facebook, now Meta, knew exactly what it was doing when it blocked emergency services pages.
Facebook says blocking other pages had been an honest mistake.
The allegations were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Whistleblower Aid also represented Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Former employees, backed by the Whistleblower Aid charity, say the company intentionally “over-blocked” Australian pages at a critical time to gain leverage over the Australian government.
Among the blocked pages were NSW Fire and Rescue and the Royal Children’s Hospital. Bouldering has even made its way into mom’s groups. At the time, Facebook said the blocking of hospital, charity and emergency services pages was “inadvertent”.
Negotiations between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mark Zuckerberg himself continued into the weekend, and a few days later the government struck a deal with the tech giant and the ban was lifted.
Documents reportedly show Meta did not use its database of news organisations, rather that it built a new “crude” algorithm that would label any page that shared 60 per cent news content as a news provider
A Meta spokesperson denied the blocking of Australian government pages was deliberate.
“The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian government pages from restrictions in an effort to minimise the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation,” the spokesperson said.
“When we were unable to do so as intended due to a technical error, we apologised and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.”
Leaked emails published in WSJ, purport to show that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and head of news partnerships Campbell Brown congratulated the team responsible for the takedown. According to the report, Brown stated it “landed just where [we] wanted,” while Zuckerberg said the best possible outcome had been achieved, and Sandberg said the strategy “set a new high standard”.
“Facebook lied not just to the public but to their own employees, many of whom worked tirelessly to propose solutions to the over-blocking problems we now realise were created by Facebook itself – solutions that were ignored or brushed aside,” Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid alleged.
Australian communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said the legislation was working as intended, and had kicked off moves for similar legislation in other parts of the world.
The pages were restored on 22 February 2021, with the remainder coming back online after the legislation passed.
The ACCC confirmed it had received the whistleblower documents.