Australians woke up to find a news black hole on social media after Facebook followed through on its threat to ban news from its platforms in response to a proposed media bargaining code.
Australian users and publishers have been restricted from sharing or viewing domestic and international news. Overseas users also report being unable to access Australian news content.
Facebook started blocking news content from a wide range of sources on Thursday morning, only allowing users to see stories informing them of Facebook's decision.
Other stories, however, were blocked and past posts were removed from the Facebook pages of news organisations despite some finding early loopholes. Overseas news organisations also had their content removed for Australian audiences.
Facebook also blocked important government information pages including the weather bureau, health departments and police agencies.
In the process, charities and community groups were targeted in the widespread censorship blitz.
The platform has since restored some of the state and territory pages initially caught up in the news ban, saying it didn't intend its ban on sharing news content to impact government pages.
"The actions we are taking are focused on restricting Australian publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content," it said in a statement.
"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."
Queensland, SA and ACT Health and the WA Fire and Emergency Services were among the pages blocked. Meanwhile, the Tasmanian and ACT government pages were also down, along with the web-based national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service 1800 Respect, and the page of WA Opposition Leader Zak Kirkup less than a month out from the state election.
Australia's Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow was among those criticising the social media giant for limiting Australians' access to vital information.
"Facebook's decision deprives its Australian users of vital public information - including on emergencies, public health, fire & rescue," his tweet read.
Others also blasted the company for the timing of the decision, as the world continues to grapple with the fallout of COVID-19 and amid vital vaccine rollouts.
Freedom of expression includes the right to speak and to receive information. Facebook’s decision deprives its Australian users of vital public information – including on emergencies, public health, fire & rescue.— Edward Santow (@esantow) February 18, 2021
See International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/YLYW0o3urz
Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland says Facebook's decision was troubling in the pandemic.
"It's not OK, it's irresponsible," Ms Rowland told Sky News on Thursday morning.
"We're still in the middle of the pandemic. People take information more and more from online means. People go through a search engine or their Facebook feed for finding out what is going on, before they go to a news source."
Australian Community Media mastheads, including The Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald and Illawarra Mercury, have been blocked. The Sydney Morning Herald, the ABC and satirical sites including the Betoota Advocate and The Chaser were shutdown.
The decision led to mixed reaction online, with some Facebook users saying it would mark the end of clickbait and encourage readers to visit "reputable" websites.
Overseas users are also unable to access Australian news content. Facebook claimed it had been left with no choice.
"The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content," the company said in a statement on Thursday.
"It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia.
"With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter."
Facebook's blocking of official public safety pages was a dummy spit that made the case for stronger regulation of social media, says pro-democratic group Reset Australia.
The algorithms serving information on these platforms is neither democratic nor balanced, claims Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper.
"The ACT Health page never stood a chance against Craig Kelly, because Craig Kelly's content is sensational," Mr Cooper told The Canberra Times.
"The deck was already stacked against credible information.
"We're all human - the more sensational, outrageous content does engage us better than the facts. Their business model relies on pushing this sensational, outrageous and conspiratorial content because that's what keeps people engaged."
FB statement now: Government Pages should not be impacted... 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— Zoe Samios (@zoesam93) February 17, 2021
Australian Community Media managing director Tony Kendall said the decision was a disappointment.
"We've worked with Google to get an outcome which is good for the business but, more importantly, for consumers as well," Mr Kendall said.
"Facebook's decision we feel is going to stop quality journalism being shared more widely in communities across Australia.
"Has Facebook's decision made it a less attractive proposition for big brand advertisers, given that the platform will now be barring quality news content?"
Facebook's move is not entirely unexpected. The company first made the threat to ban news for Australians in August and repeated the ultimatum before a Senate inquiry in January.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who has proudly and loudly trumpeted the bargaining code throughout the week, has spoken to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg following the social media giant's decision.
"He raised a few remaining issues with the government's news media bargaining code and we agreed to continue our conversation to try to find a pathway forward," Mr Frydenberg said.
Labor supports the media bargaining code but has criticised the government for its handling of negotiations with the tech companies.
Opposition frontbencher Mark Dreyfus is demanding the government resolve the Facebook dispute.
"Facebook is going to dramatically alter the feed that Australians get and restrict the flow of news to Australians, the flow of real public-interest journalism and real news to Australians on Facebook," he said.
"The question is one for the government to answer instead of patting yourselves on the back. Tell Australians what's going on with Facebook. It's something that 18 million or so Australians are affected by."
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher says the Facebook news ban raises serious questions.
"It certainly raises issues about the credibility of information on the platform," he told 2GB radio.
As Facebook restricts the sharing of news, Google is striking deals in Australia to pay for journalism.
News Corp has become the latest publisher to sign a lucrative deal with Google.
The internet giant has already struck deals with Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment, and is in talks with public broadcasters ABC and SBS, as well as Guardian Australia.
The three-year Google deal with News Corp goes beyond the Australian market, extending to the publisher's titles in America and the United Kingdom.
No other news publisher has reached a single deal with Google across multiple countries.
The media bargaining code is before the Senate after clearing the House of Representatives overnight.
The legislation, which has bipartisan support, will give the treasurer power to choose which companies are subject to it.
Under the code, a panel - decided by the negotiating parties or the media watchdog - would hear offers and make a decision on payment for news content.
Facebook executive Campbell Brown denied the social media giant stole news content.
"Publishers choose to share their stories on Facebook," he said.
"From finding new readers to getting new subscribers and driving revenue, news organisations wouldn't use Facebook if it didn't help their bottom lines."
The ACT Council of Social Service also slammed the decision, after it blocked access to some Australian community organisations.
"We are very concerned by reports that we've been hearing across the day that community organisations around Australia are experiencing problems posting and sharing information using the Facebook platform," ACTCOSS chief executive officer Craig Wallace said on Thursday.
"Information posted to these pages can be vital to the safety of people experiencing disadvantage and people on low incomes.
"The arbitrary removal of essential information needed to keep people safe and supported in the middle of a pandemic without notice is completely outrageous.
"We call on Facebook to immediately restore these pages and our sector's ability to communicate important information.
"These platforms may be private companies, but they receive income from our use and exercise enormous power - and with that comes responsibility and community obligations. Where is the stewardship here?
"The reality is that social media has become the way that many vulnerable, low-income and isolated people find critical information.
"We support free press and believe journalists should be properly paid for their important work - the current set of issues between companies and government should be resolved in a way that does not impair vital community services."
- With AAP