Facebook unfriends Australia

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Australians woke to empty news feeds on their Facebook pages on Thursday after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.

The move was swiftly criticised by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates, particularly as it became clear that official health pages, emergency safety warnings and welfare networks had all been scrubbed from the site along with news.

Facebook’s dramatic move represents a split from Alphabet Inc-owned Google after they joined together for years to campaign against the laws.

Google and Facebook had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google has instead sealed preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was the latest to announce a deal in which it will receive “significant payments” from Google in return for providing content for the search engine’s News Showcase account.

Google declined to comment on the Facebook decision on Thursday.

The Australian law would 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.

Facebook said in its statement that the law, which is expected to be passed by parliament within days, “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of complying or banning news content.

The tech giant has said news makes up just 4% of what people view on its website, but for Australians Facebook’s role in news delivery is growing.

The changes made by Facebook wiped clean pages operated by news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharing Australian news, three days before the country begins a nationwide vaccination program to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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