Uighur: China bans UK MPs after abuse sanctions

China has imposed sanctions on nine UK citizens – including five MPs – for spreading what it called “lies and disinformation” about the country.

The group are among the most vocal critics of China in the UK.

It comes in retaliation for measures taken by the UK government on Monday over human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority group.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith is among the MPs targeted, along with two peers, a lawyer and an academic.

He said he would wear the sanctions “as a badge of honour”.

The response by China follows similar sanctions imposed on the European Union, which was part of the co-ordinated action on Monday, along with the UK, the US and Canada.

China has detained Uighurs at camps in the north-west region of Xinjiang, where allegations of torture, forced labour and sexual abuse have emerged.

It has denied the allegations of abuse, claiming the camps are “re-education” facilities used to combat terrorism.

The nine people facing sanctions are:

  • Tory MPs Sir Iain, Nusrat Ghani and Tim Loughton, and peers Baroness Kennedy and Lord Alton, who are all members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China
  • Tory MPs Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien, who lead the China Research Group
  • Lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, chair of the Uighur Tribunal, which is investigating atrocities against the minority group 
  • Academic Jo Smith Finley, whose research focuses on the Uighurs

They will all be banned from entering China, Hong Kong and Macau, their property in China will be frozen and Chinese citizens and institutions will be prohibited from doing business with them.

Former Conservative leader Sir Iain said: “It is our duty to call out the Chinese governments human rights abuses in Hong Kong and their genocide of the Uighur people. 

“Those of us who live free lives under the rule of law must speak for those who have no voice. If that brings the anger of China down upon me then I shall wear that as a badge of honour.”

Ms Ghani told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is a wake-up call for all democratic countries and law makers that we will not be able to conduct our day-to-day business without China sanctioning us for just attempting to expose what’s happening in Xinjiang and the abuse against the Uighurs.”

She added: “I won’t be intimidated. This has now made me even more determined to speak out about the Uighurs.”

Academic Ms Smith Finley tweeted: “I have no regrets for speaking out, and I will not be silenced.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the UK’s decision to impose sanctions “flagrantly breaches international law and basic norms governing international relations, grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs, and severely undermines China-UK relations”.

He added that the Chinese Foreign Ministry had summoned the British Ambassador to China to “lodge solemn representations, expressing firm opposition and strong condemnation”. 

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Relations ‘will deteriorate further’

Analysis box by James Landale, Diplomaitc correspondent

This retaliation by the Chinese government was not unexpected. 

From the moment the UK imposed its first ever sanctions on Chinese officials earlier in the week, a response from Beijing was inevitable. 

But that does not mean the tit-for-tat exchange of sanctions is unimportant. It will ensure that the UK’s already poor relationship with China will deteriorate further. 

And that matters because the government is trying to strike a balance in its relations with Beijing. 

In its recent foreign policy review, the UK described China as a “systemic competitor” and “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security”. 

But it also spoke of pursuing “a positive trade and investment relationship” and co-operating with China on climate change and biodiversity. All that just became a little harder still.

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Four groups have also been sanctioned – the China Research Group, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, the Uighur Tribunal, and Essex Court Chambers.

A legal opinion by senior barristers at Essex Court Chambers had concluded there was a “very credible case” that the Chinese government was committing genocide against the Uighurs. 

An Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China spokesman said: “The decision to sanction five of our British members is a flagrant assault on those Parliamentarians’ rights to conduct their duties. 

“We will be making urgent representations to ministers and the House authorities to see that they’re protected from danger or harm as a result of the communist party’s bullying.”

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China ‘targeting’ Boris Johnson

Analysis box by Robin Brant, Shanghai correspondent

China has gone for the people exerting the most pressure on Boris Johnson to be tough on China. 

It’s gone for the people who say “genocide” has happened in Xinjiang. 

The measures are essentially tokenistic – it’s unlikely these people or entities did any business with Chinese firms or people anyway. 

Targeting Neil O’Brien is personal for the UK prime minister. The MP is in charge of leading policy in Downing Street. 

Going after Essex Court Chambers – a firm set up by self-employed barristers – for a legal opinion it reached also shows you how China views an independent judicial system. It doesn’t believe in them.

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After UK sanctions were announced on Monday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called the abuse of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang “one of the worst human rights crises of our time”.

More than a million Uighurs and other minorities are estimated to have been detained in camps in Xinjiang.

A map showing the Xinjiang region

Xinjiang lies in the north-west of China and is the country’s biggest region. Like Tibet, it is autonomous, meaning – in theory – it has some powers of self-governance. But in practice, both face major restrictions by the central government.

Uighurs living in the region speak their own language, similar to Turkish, and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.

The Chinese government has been accused of carrying out forced sterilisations on Uighur women and separating children from their families.

The country initially denied the existence of the camps, before defending them as a necessary measure against terrorism. It has denied allegations of human rights abuses.

Russia slows Twitter’s speed over failure to remove banned content

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s state communications watchdog said on Wednesday it was restricting the use of Twitter by slowing down its speed, accusing the social media platform of repeatedly failing to remove banned content from its site.

Roskomnadzor threatened to block the service completely and said there were more than 3,000 posts containing illegal content on it as of Wednesday.

Twitter, like other U.S. social media, is used widely inside Russia by allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny whose jailing last month prompted nationwide protests.

“The slowing down will be applied on a 100% of mobile devices and on 50% of non-mobile devices,” the regulator said in a statement on its website.

“If (Twitter) continues to ignore the requirements of the law, the enforcement measures will be continued in line with the response regulations (all the way to blocking),” it said.

Twitter did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Wednesday’s move comes amid mounting efforts by Moscow to exert greater influence over U.S. social media platforms and frustrations over what authorities say is their failure to follow Russian laws.

Last December, parliament’s lower house backed big new fines on platforms that fail to delete banned content and another bill that would allow them to be restricted if they “discriminate” against Russian media.

Facebook reverses ban on news pages in Australia

Facebook has announced it will restore news content to its users in Australia.

The tech giant has blocked news to Australians on its platform since last Thursday amid a dispute over a proposed law which would force it and Google to pay news publishers for content.

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg had told him the ban would end “in the coming days”, after the pair had talks.

Mr Frydenberg said amendments would be made to the law.

“Facebook has re-friended Australia,” he told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday. 

The government has been debating the law – seen as a possible test case for regulation globally – in the Senate, after it was passed in the lower house last week.

Why did Facebook block news content?

Last Thursday, Australians woke up to find they could not access or share any news stories on their accounts. 

Facebook argued it had been forced to block Australian news in response to the proposed legislation.

The government’s news code aims to set up a “fairer” negotiation process between the tech giants and news companies over the value of news content.

But it has been strongly opposed by Facebook and Google – both argue the code misunderstands how the internet works. Facebook has also said it gets little commercial gain from news content.

But the Australian government says the code is needed to “level the playing field” for news publishers, which have seen profits slump in the internet age.

Why has it changed its mind?

Facebook said on Tuesday that it had been reassured by recent discussions with the government.

“Going forward, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to forced negotiation,” said Campbell Brown, vice president of global news partnerships at Facebook.

“We have come to an agreement that will allow us to support the publishers we choose to, including small and local publishers.”

Facebook already has its own “showcase” product through which it pays media organisations a fee to display their stories on its platform.

Google had also threatened to withdraw its primary search engine from Australia, but the company has recently agreed deals with local media companies including Nine Entertainment, Seven West Media and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

What does the government say now?

The government said it had encouraged Facebook to negotiate in good faith with local media companies, citing Google’s recent deals as an example.

Mr Frydenberg again criticised Facebook’s news ban last week, saying it was a “regrettable” action that came with no warning.

The blanket ban had also initially included more than 100 non-news sites including government health and emergency pages. Facebook later asserted that these had been “inadvertently impacted”.

The tech giant drew a wide backlash from Australian users.

UK court blocks Epic Games from contesting Apple’s Fortnite ban

(Reuters) – The UK antitrust tribunal ruled on Monday that Epic Games, the creator of popular game Fortnite, will not be allowed to pursue its case against Apple Inc in the United Kingdom over its App Store payment system and control over app downloads.

The two companies have been at loggerheads since August, when the game maker tried to avoid Apple’s 30% fee on the App Store by launching its own in-app payment system, which led to Apple’s subsequent ban of Fortnite from its store.

The UK tribunal said Epic’s suit against Alphabet Inc’s Google could move forward, but deemed that the United States would be a better forum for its case against Apple.

“Epic will reconsider pursuing its case against Apple in the UK after the resolution of the U.S. case,” the video game company said in a statement in response to the tribunal’s ruling.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

In October, a federal judge in California ruled in an injunction request that Apple could bar the Fortnite game from its App Store but must not harm Epic’s developer tools business, which includes the “Unreal Engine” software used by hundreds of other video games.

Epic Games founder and Chief Executive Tim Sweeney had previously said Apple’s control of its platform had tilted the level playing field.

Facebook’s Australia news blackout: a shock four years in the making

(Reuters) – Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was as shocked as anyone when he learned that Facebook Inc had blocked news content from its website in his country at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday.

He had been in direct contact with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and, he thought, was making progress toward an accommodation over proposed rules that would force the tech titan to pay publishers to link to their news.

Yet this was a shock four years in the making – a potential global turning point for regulation of big social media companies that began with Australia’s complex, provincial politics in 2017.

The fight between the world’s largest social media company and the 13th-largest economy is the result of a bill, scheduled for debate next week in Australia’s Senate, that was foisted on Frydenberg and his boss at the time.

Then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull wanted to relax media merger-and-acquisition laws to let Australian news outlets like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp scale up and survive a revenue crash as advertisers took their business to internet heavyweights like Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google.

Turnbull’s conservative government needed support from outspoken independent Nick Xenophon, who held the balance of power in the Senate. He made the government promise an inquiry into “internet giants such as Google and Facebook”.

This week’s blowup “is something I’d be very happy to take responsibility for,” said Xenophon, now a private sector lawyer.

“If there is a viable rival to Facebook in years to come, its genesis will be the event that occurred in Australia on the 18th of February,” he told Reuters. “Facebook has exposed the level of its market power. It’s behaving like a monopoly.”

Turnbull’s treasurer, Scott Morrison, honoured the Xenophon deal by tasking the antitrust regulator with examining Google and Facebook to “fully understand their influence in Australia”.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) inquiry ground on, Morrison became prime minister and Frydenberg became his treasurer. Meanwhile, Facebook’s image in Australia as a harmless online gathering spot was marred by revelations it sold third-party marketers the personal data of millions of people to target in the 2016 U.S. election.

CONCILIATION VS BOMBSHELL

When the ACCC delivered its report in mid-2019, Frydenberg called out Facebook’s $5 billion fine for the election-related privacy breaches, saying it and Google “need to be held to account and their activities need to be more transparent”.

He left it to Australian media and Big Tech to thrash out a framework to negotiate the price of links that draw clicks – and advertising dollars – to their platforms. When that failed the ACCC stepped in, saying it would appoint an arbitrator to set fees in the event of stalemate, a model suggested by News Corp.

The tech titans responded last September with threats to cancel their services in the country if the bargaining code took effect. They repeated the threats in January.

With parliamentary votes looming, Prime Minister Morrison revealed that Microsoft Corp CEO Satya Nadella had offered its search engine Bing if Google’s disappeared. Frydenberg said he was talking with Zuckerberg.

As the bill moved through and passed the lower house, Google struck deals with free-to-air network Seven West Media Ltd and rival Nine Entertainment Co Holdings, which also owns the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age newspapers.

“None of these deals would be happening if we didn’t have the legislation before the parliament,” Frydenberg said on Wednesday. Then, in the early hours of Thursday morning Canberra time, News Corp announced a global deal with Google.

News Corp and Seven thanked Morrison, Frydenberg and ACCC commissioner Rod Sims for forcing the issue. Murdoch’s company said Xenophon was “instrumental in having Australia adopt a world first, highly innovative policy approach”.

As Google turned conciliatory and the bill looked set to become law next week, it was Facebook’s turn.

Frydenberg was dressed for tennis on Thursday morning when he learned Facebook had taken a dramatically different approach – pulling the plug on Australia’s news sites and, inadvertently, on many government disaster-information pages and other public-service outlets.

Facebook said on Thursday that because the bill “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.”

Frydenberg cancelled his tennis game and arranged another call with Zuckerberg, and another the next day.

“We certainly weren’t given any notice by Facebook,” the treasurer told reporters. But he said his half-hour call was “constructive”.

“We’ll hear from them in the coming days and we’ll see if we can find a pathway forward.”

Facebook Australia: Tech giant faces growing criticism over news ban

Facebook is facing mounting criticism after it blocked news content in Australia amid a dispute with the government over a planned law.

The law will force tech giants to pay for news content on their platforms.

Facebook says the legislation “fundamentally misunderstands” its relationship with publishers.

But politicians, publishers and rights groups in several countries have accused it of bullying, and raised concerns over access to information.

Under Facebook’s new rules, Australian users are blocked from viewing and sharing local and international news, while local publishers are restricted from sharing or posting any links on their pages. 

Several government health and emergency pages were also blocked, but Facebook later said this was a mistake and many of these pages are now back online.

Who has criticised the move?

In a statement posted on Facebook, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the social media company’s actions to “unfriend Australia” were “as arrogant as they were disappointing”.

He added that he was in “regular contact with the leaders of other nations” over the issue and would not be “intimidated”.

Mr Morrison later raised the issue with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as he sought to gain international support, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. 

Other Australian officials have also criticised the move. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the ban on news information had a “huge community impact”. About 17 million Australians visit the social media site every month. It is the most important social platform for news in the country. 

Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan accused Facebook of “behaving like a North Korean dictator”.

Others suggested that a news vacuum could be filled by misinformation and conspiracy theories. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, 16 February 2021.
image captionScott Morrison issued a response on Facebook

Human Rights Watch’s Australia director said Facebook was censoring the flow of information, calling it a “dangerous turn of events”.

A local campaigner with rights group Amnesty International said it was “extremely concerning that a private company is willing to control access to information that people rely on”.

The move also faced criticism outside Australia.

Julian Knight, the head of the British parliamentary committee overseeing the media industry, called Facebook’s action “bullying”.

“I think it’s staggeringly irresponsible – at a time when we are facing a plethora of fake news and disinformation in relation to the Covid vaccine,” he told the BBC. 

“This is not just about Australia. This is Facebook putting a marker down, saying to the world that ‘if you do wish to limit our powers… we can remove what is for many people a utility’.”

Global publishers also reacted, with the company behind the Guardian newspaper saying it was “deeply concerned”.

The head of Germany’s BDZV news publishers’ association said it was “high time that governments all over the world limit the market power of the gatekeeper platforms”.

Many Australian users are also angry about their sudden loss of access to trusted and authoritative sources.

“It feels obviously very restrictive in what Facebook is going to allow people to do in the future, not only in Australia but around the world,” Peter Firth, in Sydney, told the BBC. 

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Will fake news thrive?

Analysis by Reality Check

Facebook’s ban on news sites on its Australian-facing site could well lead to greater prominence for unverified and untrusted information, helping disinformation to spread further. 

First Draft, a site which investigates the spread of false and misleading posts online, warned the restrictions would “open up a vacuum that could be filled in part by mis and disinformation”.

Facebook says it will continue to remove harmful misinformation, connect users with reliable health advice and work with third-party fact checkers.

One of the topics for which a great deal of unreliable information is shared online is that of Covid-19 vaccines.

So we looked at search results for the word “vaccine” over the past 12 hours on Facebook pages primarily based in Australia and found prominent results for sites casting doubt on the coronavirus pandemic. 

This search also brings up reliable information sources, and further analysis will be needed over the next few days to see whether this anecdotal evidence is backed up by longer term data.

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So why is Facebook doing this?

Australian authorities say they drew up the laws to “level the playing field” on profits between the tech giants and struggling publishers. Of every A$100 (£56; $77) spent on digital advertising in Australian media these days, A$81 goes to Google and Facebook.

But Facebook’s local managing director William Easton says the law seeks to “penalise” the company “for content it didn’t take or ask for”.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content. 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,” Mr Easton wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.

Facebook said it helped Australian publishers earn about A$407m last year through referrals, while “the platform gain from news is minimal”.

What will happen with the law?

Australia’s conservative government is standing by the law – which passed the lower house of parliament on Wednesday. It has broad cross-party support and the Senate is likely to pass it next week.

“We will legislate this code. We want the digital giants paying traditional news media businesses for generating original journalistic content,” said Mr Frydenberg.

Facebook Australia row: How Facebook became so powerful in news

On Thursday, millions of Australians woke up to find a drastically different version of Facebook – one devoid of any news. 

Overnight, Facebook banned Australian users from sharing or viewing news content on the platform – in response to a proposed law that would make tech giants pay for such content. 

Facebook has, in just a matter of years, established itself as the place where many get their news. And the platform’s outsized influence on how some newsrooms make editorial and hiring decisions has led to it being described as “the absent editor in the room”.

So how exactly did it cement its place one of the world’s biggest sources of news?

Facebook becomes top Australian news source

There’s no doubt that Facebook has become one of the most – if not the most – important social network for many news consumers.

According to a Reuters report, up to 40% of Australians used Facebook for news between 2018 and 2020 – making it the country’s most popular social media and messaging platform for news.

But there has been much concern about the dominance of these tech firms in the media landscape.

In 2018, an Australian market regulator launched an inquiry into the impact of Google and Facebook on competition in media and advertising.

The inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) found that big tech giants collected the lion’s share of revenue and profits in the media space. Of every A$100 (£56; $77) spent on digital advertising in Australian media these days, A$81 goes to Google and Facebook. 

In light of this imbalance between tech firms and the media, the commission said a code of conduct should be introduced to level the playing field. 

The draft code calls on tech companies to pay for content, though it does not say how much. It would also enable news companies to negotiate as a bloc with tech firms over how content appears in news feeds and search results.

The government argues that tech giants should pay newsrooms a “fair” amount for their journalism.

It’s justified this market intervention by arguing that Australia’s embattled news industry is struggling, and a strong media is vital to the public interest and democracy. 

But Facebook has said it rejects any law requiring it to pay, and the argument behind it.

Meanwhile Google, despite resisting the law, has nonetheless agreed to multimillion-dollar contracts with three major Australian news outlets. 

A symbiotic relationship?

It’s clear that there is a huge reliance on Facebook for news – but its relationship with news publishers goes both ways.

Facebook claims that the media benefit more from this relationship than they do.

“Publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook, as it allows them to sell more subscriptions, grow their audiences and increase advertising revenue,” said William Easton, the company’s local managing director. 

He says Facebook generated five billion referrals to Australian news sites, worth about A$400m. 

But news is one of the top reasons why people use social media, according to the Reuters report, and Facebook is the biggest social platform for it. 

Newsrooms have said they can’t ignore that audience. Meanwhile journalists say that Facebook has actively encouraged news sites to hold workshops for reporters and editors on how to use its platform better. 

However it soon became clear there was an issue of transparency. Facebook constantly made changes to its software without notice to news publishers.

It made repeated changes to its News Feed algorithm – making some posts less visible to readers; or “throttling” the news feed, as one editor described it. 

It was the absent editor in the room who could instantly dictate editorial changes. 

‘The goal posts kept shifting’

“The algorithmic changes were made with no pre-warning, no insights and no reasoning… [it] was incredibly frustrating,” Isabelle Oderberg, a former social media editor for News Corp Australia, told BBC News. 

“It affected our traffic and it was just mostly really upsetting. The social media community would [then have to] wait for Facebook to [explain] the change, though they didn’t always explain it. It’s always been clear what the power balance was.” 

The BBC spoke with other three reporters from different local media organisations, who asked to remain anonymous.

One radio journalist at a large Australian outlet told the BBC that, to them, it felt like the “goal posts kept shifting” – and priorities would change every year or two years to suit what would work best for Facebook. 

“Overall, a massive issue lies in the extent to which media organisations entangled themselves willingly with the Facebook algorithm and began to measure their success via Facebook,” they said. 

The three reporters all noted the shift in newsrooms when Facebook decided to prioritise video – making news videos more prominent to Facebook users in the feed.

It resulted in dozens of video producers being hired, or existing journalists getting rushed skills training.

That was on top of the existing demand for digital producers who could write “clicky” headlines for online stories and social posts.

“We were told audio stories wouldn’t work [on social] so you needed to write up the content in a digital article for it to be shared, but then suddenly it needed to be a video,” said the radio journalist.

“And it felt sometimes like it didn’t matter – the quality or the nature of what you were getting at, [or whether it] was a good story – if it wasn’t suited to the algorithm,” they added.

‘No longer king of the hill’

Concerns for the future of the industry have also been expressed by experts outside the newsroom.

Erasmus Nielsen, director of Oxford University’s Reuters Institute, told the BBC that distinctions between credible reporting and rumour are being eroded by Facebook’s “feed” format.

But there are benefits too.

Mr Nielsen says Facebook has provided a platform for more people to come into contact with news, even if they aren’t seeking it out.

It has also created a news environment which is more representative of communities that have been “roundly and routinely ignored by established media,” says Mr Nielsen.

A study by the institute has found that around half of internet users do not actively seek out news content on a daily basis – something the media industry has not yet come to terms with, Mr Nielsen argues.

The challenge, then, is how to engage, inform and create value for consumers.

“What does it mean when you’re no longer king of the hill with a structured, privileged access to people’s attention, but actually have to fight for it in the trenches with lots of other things that people apparently find more compelling and useful than what they see in journalism?”

Facebook ‘bully’ move in Australia shows need for regulation – UK media trade body says

LONDON (Reuters) – Facebook’s move to block all media content in Australia shows why countries around the world need robust regulation to stop tech giants behaving like a “school yard bully”, the head of the UK’s news media trade group said.

News Media Association chairman Henry Faure Walker said Facebook’s ban during a global pandemic was “a classic example of a monopoly power being the school yard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves.”

“Facebook’s actions in Australia demonstrate precisely why we need jurisdictions across the globe, including the UK, to coordinate to deliver robust regulation to create a truly level playing between the tech giants and news publishers.”

The social media giant shocked Australia on Thursday when it blocked all media content from its platform in a stunning escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.

The move came after the government of Scott Morrison drafted a law to require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price.

The legislation, which is expected to be passed by the Australian parliament within days, prompted Google to seal preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.

Facebook said the law “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of complying or banning news content.

Facebook argues that the British media market is different, after it launched Facebook News through partnerships with publishers such as the Daily Mail group, Financial Times, Guardian and Telegraph.

Facebook Australia: PM Scott Morrison ‘will not be intimidated’ by tech giant

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said his government will not be intimidated by Facebook blocking news feeds to users.

He described the move to “unfriend Australia” as arrogant and disappointing.

Facebook is responding to a proposed law which would make tech giants pay for news content on their platforms.

Australians on Thursday woke up to find that Facebook pages of all local and global news sites were unavailable.

People outside the country are also unable to read or access any Australian news publications on the platform.

Several government health and emergency pages were also blocked. Facebook later asserted this was a mistake and many of these pages are now back online.

Google and Facebook have fought the law because they say it doesn’t reflect how the internet works, and unfairly “penalises” their platforms.

However, in contrast to Facebook, Google has in recent days signed payment deals with three major Australian media outlets. 

Facebook’s action came just hours after Google agreed to pay Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for content from news sites across its media empire.

Consumption of digital news through social media and search engines is growing in Australia, according to the Reuters Digital News Report for 2020.

Some 37% of consumers who took part said they had gained access to news via social media over the course of a week, compared with 31% who had directly accessed websites or apps, the report said.

What is the response to the ban?

In a statement posted on Facebook, Mr Morrison said that big tech companies might be changing the world but this did not mean they should run it.

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” he said.

“I am in regular contact with the leaders of other nations on these issues. We simply won’t be intimidated,” he added.

Mr Morrison urged Facebook to work constructively with the government, “as Google recently demonstrated in good faith”.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the ban on news information had a “huge community impact”. About 17 million Australians visit the social media site every month.

Other officials were less diplomatic. Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan accused the company of “behaving like a North Korean dictator”.

ABC News Australia Facebook page
image captionPages like that of national broadcaster ABC have been blocked

Others suggested that a news vacuum could be filled by misinformation and conspiracy theories. In a tweet, Sydney Morning Herald editor Lisa Davies described the move as a “tantrum”.

Human Rights Watch’s Australia director said Facebook was censoring the flow of information in the country – calling it a “dangerous turn of events”.

“Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable,” said Elaine Pearson.

What about the public reaction?

Many Australians are angry about their sudden loss of access to trusted and authoritative sources.

“It feels obviously very restrictive in what Facebook is going to allow people to do in the future, not only in Australia but around the world,” Peter Firth, in Sydney, told the BBC. 

Amelia Marshall said she could not believe the firm’s decision “in the middle of a pandemic”, adding: “I’ve made the long-overdue decision to permanently delete my Facebook account.” 

Why is Facebook doing this?

Australian authorities had drawn up the laws to “level the playing field” between the tech giants and struggling publishers over profits. Of every A$100 (£56; $77) spent on digital advertising in Australian media these days, A$81 goes to Google and Facebook.

But Facebook said the law left it “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,” it said in a blog post.

A woman looks at the Facebook logo on an iPad in this photo illustration taken June 3, 2018
image captionFacebook said it was making the change “with a heavy heart”

The law sought “to penalise Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for”, the company’s local managing director William Easton said.

Facebook said it helped Australian publishers earn about A$407m (£228m; $316m) last year through referrals, but for itself “the platform gain from news is minimal”.

However, news is the third biggest reason for why people go to social media, according to Reuters’ Digital News Report.

Facebook is by far the most important social platform for news. In Australia, about 36% of people use the platform for news. Meanwhile, only 14% of Australians pay for online news.

Also, media companies have seen a long-term decline in advertising revenue while that of Google and Facebook has risen in recent years.

Under the ban, Australian publishers are also restricted from sharing or posting any links on their Facebook pages. The national broadcaster, the ABC, and newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian have millions of followers.

What will happen to the law?

Australia’s conservative government is standing by the law – which passed the lower house of parliament on Wednesday. It has broad cross-party support and the Senate is likely to pass it next week.

“We will legislate this code. We want the digital giants paying traditional news media businesses for generating original journalistic content,” said Mr Frydenberg who added that “the eyes of the world are watching what’s happening here”.

He pointed out that Facebook, like Google, had been negotiating pay deals with local organisations. This banning action had “come at an eleventh hour” and damaged the site’s reputation, he said.

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Facebook wants to call the shots

Analysis box by James Clayton, North America technology reporter

Australia is not a big market for Facebook. And Facebook says news isn’t a big driver of revenue for the company. So why does it care so much about this law? 

This is far more about the principle. Other countries have been looking at what is happening in Australia. There’s speculation that Canada, even the EU could follow Australia’s lead – something Facebook wants to avoid. 

Facebook does already pay for some news. It’s entered into commercial deals with media companies in the UK, for example.

What Facebook wants to do, however, is call the shots. 

Its executives do not want governments to step in, telling them they have to pay for news – and even setting the price.

Facebook, then, has decided to show that there are consequences for governments if they want to take muscular action against Big Tech.