Facebook deliberately cut off access to emergency services, whistleblowers say

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As wildfires raged across Australia and a pandemic spiraled out of control, Facebook deliberately restricted access to pages providing emergency services, whistleblowers claim, in a bid to get leverage on pending government regulation there.

Documents and testimony filed with Australian and US regulators and recently published by The Wall Street Journal paint a damning picture of the company, alleging it intentionally wreaked havoc last year in response to an Australian bill. which would force Facebook to compensate the media for the use of their content.

Instead of complying with the proposal, Facebook banned Australian users from sharing or reading news articles. At the same time, the company also abruptly blocked an additional 17,000 non-media pages, reports the WSJ.

These 17,000 pages included hospitals and fire departments across the country, suicide helplines, government services and charities and non-profit organizations like Mission Australia and the Hobart Women’s Shelter , which provide emergency medical and domestic violence services.

A spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, told HuffPost that the massive ban was a big mistake “due to a technical error,” and that Facebook worked to rectify the situation immediately. “Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false,” the company said.

But leaked emails in the documents undermined that narrative.

Top Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, hailed the tactic. Campbell Brown, head of news partnerships at Facebook, called him a “genius.”

Campbell Brown introduces Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at The Paley Center on Friday, October 25, 2019, in New York City. Brown hailed a plan that cut off access to emergency services in Australia as “genius”.

And internal messages from Facebook employees at the time pointing out the error went unheeded for days. It was only after Facebook reached an agreement with the Australian government watering down the proposal that the platform reinstated all pages.

Former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission director Rod Sims, who led the reform effort, told the Australian Financial Review that the allegations could be enough to reignite the country’s regulatory push.

“If what the whistleblower is saying is true,” he said, “then Facebook was clearly putting lives at risk, on purpose, which is pretty amazing and doesn’t reflect Facebook well.”

Chris Cooper, executive director of Reset Australia, a non-profit political group that tracks digital threats to democracy, was a bit more blunt.

“Facebook had almost seven months to prepare for their news ban, and they made the calculated decision to turn off the main communication channel for fire departments during bushfire season, public hospitals in the event pandemic, candidates in the middle of an election, and even suicide hotlines,” he said in a statement.

“It was not their incompetence that saw these pages shut down, it was intentional and calculated malice.”

“They chose to endanger public safety as a negotiation tactic,” he continued. “They threatened community safety to extort policy changes. It was nothing less than a direct attack on our democratic process.

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