The fallout from Facebook deciding to make good on its threat to block Australian news media continued into Question Time on Thursday, as a parade of government ministers decried the manoeuvre, particularly as it related to government health and safety information.
Earlier in the day, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the blocks were wrong and heavy-handed, and Health Minister Greg Hunt continued with that theme.
“Facebook has taken steps, which are unprecedented and reprehensible. Unacceptable in a democracy such as this, and an abuse of their power,” he said.
“In particular, the advice that I have is that during the course of the day, government health pages for Queensland Health, ACT Health, South Australian Health, New South Wales Health have all been affected.”
Throughout the day, Facebook has been restoring government pages, but it has not been enough to avoid the government’s ire.
“We expect that Facebook will fix these actions immediately and never repeat them again,” Hunt said.
“This is an assault on a sovereign nation.
“It is an assault on people’s freedom and, in particular, it is an utter abuse of big technology’s market power and control over technology. This will go around the world, but this stops. This is unacceptable.
Hunt called on Facebook to “put people over profit”.
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Following Hunt to the dispatch box on Thursday was Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, who labelled the blocks on the pages of the Bureau of Meteorology, state emergency services, and the ABC as irresponsible.
“They have done that on a morning in which there was an extreme fire warning issued for Eucla in WA and, in fact, there are flood warnings for the Tully and Murray rivers in North Queensland,” he said.
“They have issued those, tried to issue those today through a platform that has been used and it has evolved as Facebook has evolved, and been an important conduit to provide the important information to those people in disaster areas.
“Let me make this clear — the legislation that passed this House and now is going to the Senate does not impose any financial burden on Facebook for the use of government information, particularly from emergency services.”
At the start of the year, social media experienced an uptick in local misinformation as a number of users promoted arson conspiracy theories to explain away Australia’s 2020 Black Summer bushfires.
Littleproud said the ability of emergency services to monitor information placed on Facebook in order to counter any mistruths was critical.
“You need a single source of truth. That is why these sites are so critical to the Australian public in times of natural disaster,” he said.
Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley was one of the few to offer alternatives to using Facebook.
“All forecast warnings and other critical information are, of course, at the BOM weather app, and I take this opportunity to ask that people download it,” she said.
“When as a multibillion-dollar corporation, you enter these sort of platforms, you walk into responsibility as well as profit.
“The message we received today is that responsibility is arbitrary at best, heavy-handed at worst. Our resolution, as the Minister for Communications has said, around the media bargaining code is strong but we want access to community and safety information.”