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Facebook Deliberately Caused Havoc in Australia to Influence New Law, Whistleblowers Say

Last year when

Facebook

FB -6.77%

blocked news in Australia in response to potential legislation making platforms pay publishers for content, it also took down the pages of Australian hospitals, emergency services and charities. It publicly called the resulting chaos “inadvertent.”

Internally, the pre-emptive strike was hailed as a strategic masterstroke.

Facebook documents and testimony filed to U.S. and Australian authorities by whistleblowers allege that the social-media giant deliberately created an overly broad and sloppy process to take down pages—allowing swaths of the Australian government and health services to be caught in its web just as the country was launching Covid vaccinations.

The goal, according to the whistleblowers and documents, was to exert maximum negotiating leverage over the Australian Parliament, which was voting on the first law in the world that would require platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay news outlets for content.

Despite saying it was targeting only news outlets, the company deployed an algorithm for deciding what pages to take down that it knew was certain to affect more than publishers, according to the documents and people familiar with the matter.

It didn’t notify affected pages in advance they would be blocked or provide a system for them to appeal once they were.

The documents also show multiple Facebook employees tried to raise alarms about the impact and offer possible solutions, only to receive a minimal or delayed response from the leaders of the team in charge.

After five days that caused disorder throughout the country, Australia’s Parliament amended the proposed law to the degree that, a year after its passage, its most onerous provisions haven’t been applied to Facebook or its parent company,

Meta Platforms Inc.

FB -6.77%

“We landed exactly where we wanted to,” wrote

Campbell Brown,

Facebook’s head of partnerships, who pressed for the company’s aggressive stance, in a congratulatory email to her team minutes after the Australian Senate voted to approve the watered-down bill at the end of February 2021.

Facebook Chief Executive

Mark Zuckerberg

and Chief Operating Officer

Sheryl Sandberg

chimed in with congratulations as well, with Ms. Sandberg praising the “thoughtfulness of the strategy” and “precision of execution.”

Emails sent by Campbell Brown, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg congratulating staff for their work after the revised law was passed.

“We landed exactly where we wanted to — and that was only possible because this team was genius enough to pull it off in zero time.”

“The thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and

ability to stay nimble as things evolved sets a new high-standard.”

“We were able to execute quickly and take a principled approach for our community around the world, while achieving what might be the best possible outcome in Australia.”

“We landed exactly where we wanted to — and that was only possible because this team was genius enough to pull it off in zero time.”

“The thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved sets a new high-standard.”

“We were able to execute quickly and take a principled approach for our community around the world, while achieving what might be the best possible outcome in Australia.”

“We landed exactly where we wanted to — and that was only possible because this team was genius enough to pull it off in zero time.”

“The thoughtfulness of the strategy, precision of execution, and ability to stay nimble as things evolved sets a new high-standard.”

“We were able to execute quickly and take a principled approach for our community around the world, while achieving what might be the best possible outcome

in Australia.”

Facebook denied the moves were a negotiating tactic.

“The documents in question clearly show that we intended to exempt Australian government Pages from restrictions in an effort to minimize the impact of this misguided and harmful legislation,” said Facebook spokesman

Andy Stone.

“When we were unable to do so as intended due to a technical error, we apologized and worked to correct it. Any suggestion to the contrary is categorically and obviously false.”

Facebook felt it needed a broad tool because the law didn’t define news, Mr. Stone said.

People familiar with Facebook’s thinking said executives knew its process for classifying news for the removal of pages was so broad that it would likely hit government pages and other social services. They decided to take that route because Facebook was afraid a narrower definition might lead it to run afoul of the law, which contained a nondiscrimination clause barring platforms from carrying links to some news publishers but not others, the people said.

Facebook also decided to remove pages before the law went into effect because it feared that publishers might take legal action to block their ability to remove news once the legislation became law, the people said.

Facebook’s hardball approach provides a glimpse of how future fights might go as similar legislation is introduced around the world. Last month, Canada introduced legislation modeled on Australia’s that would force Google and Facebook to engage in a process that could include “final offer” arbitration with publishers to decide on payment, a process that tends to favor publishers. Similar legislation is circulating in the U.S. Congress.

The Wall Street Journal’s parent company,

News Corp,

was one of the publishers that forged deals with both

Alphabet Inc.’s

Google and Facebook in Australia last year, and has been an outspoken advocate that such platforms pay publishers for their content.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg last year.



Photo:

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Facebook documents, reviewed by the Journal, have been submitted as part of whistleblower complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, or ACCC. The documents have also been shared with members of Congress.

Rod Sims, who was the chair of the Australian competition regulator at the time of Facebook’s news takedown, said he believed Facebook’s explanation at the time that the improper blocking of some pages was a mistake. “I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they just overshot,” he said. “It’s either a conspiracy they did it deliberately, or they got it wrong and mucked it up, and I was assuming the latter.”

He said he doesn’t think last-minute changes won by the tech giant substantially weakened the bill, pointing to the many private deals to pay for content that Facebook and Google have forged with publishers in Australia since the legislation passed.

Mr. Sims said his current view was that the Australian government got most of what it wanted while Facebook had to move its position from where it started. “It’s been a massive turnaround by them,” he said. “It’s interesting they’re patting themselves on the back.”

The whistleblowers said the intent of the project—as a negotiating tactic—was unambiguous to those who worked on it. “It was clear this was not us complying with the law, but a hit on civic institutions and emergency services in Australia,” said one employee who worked on the project.

That employee is one of the whistleblowers close to the project represented by John Tye, the founder of Whistleblower Aid, the nonprofit organization that separately also represented Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who made public documents that showed the company knows its platforms are riddled with dangerous flaws. In the complaints filed with regulators, Mr. Tye alleges “a criminal conspiracy to obtain a thing of value, namely favorable regulatory treatment.”

Australia has been at the vanguard of a global movement to shift the relationship between publishers and platforms. In 2019, the ACCC published a study blaming Facebook and Google’s business practices for weakening the country’s journalistic institutions, which it said “are important for the healthy functioning of the democratic process.”

In July 2020, the ACCC published a legislative proposal aimed at fixing the issue by forcing platforms to negotiate payment with publishers under binding arbitration.

Both Facebook and Google fought the legislation, arguing the law as originally proposed was unworkable. Worried about the precedent the law would set, both effectively threatened some kind of Australian blackout, with Google warning it would shut down its search engine in the country and Facebook saying it would remove news from its platform in the country if the proposal became law.

Inside Facebook, according to the whistleblower complaints, the company assembled a team of about a dozen people to prepare to remove the news content. The team largely consisted of members of Facebook’s News team, which typically worked on products such as the Facebook News Tab, according to people familiar with the matter.

Instead of using Facebook’s long-established database of existing news publishers, called News Page Index, the newly assembled team developed a crude algorithmic news classifier that ensured more than just news would be caught in the net, according to documents and the people familiar with the matter. “If 60% of [sic] more of a domain’s content shared on Facebook is classified as news, then the entire domain will be considered a news domain,” stated one internal document. The algorithm didn’t distinguish between pages of news producers and pages that shared news.

The Facebook documents in the complaints don’t explain why it didn’t use its News Page Index. A person familiar with the matter said that since news publishers had to opt in to the index, it wouldn’t have necessarily included every publisher.

The team also created a timeline for how it would roll out the takedown that showed it intended to launch before an appeals process was ready, the documents show. The move didn’t follow typical procedure, according to the people familiar with the takedown.

An internal planning document shows that Facebook considered the “ideal TD [takedown] timing” was after the Australian Parliament voted on the legislation but before it was signed into law, and potentially before an appeals process was ready, which wasn’t a typical process for Facebook.

“An appeals process was being built, but the agreement was reached before it launched,” Mr. Stone said.

As the legislation headed toward a vote in February 2021, Google backed off its threat to shut down its search engine in Australia and instead forged private deals with news publishers.

Google spokeswoman Jenn Crider said this week the company had worked with publishers for more than 20 years to address challenges in the industry. “We also support thoughtful regulation that will support a diverse, sustainable and innovative news ecosystem that respects the open web and free expression it enables,” she said.

On Feb. 18, about a week ahead of the final vote in the Australian Parliament, Facebook began taking down pages. Despite the months of warnings from Facebook that it might make such a move, the reality of the blackout took Australians by surprise.

In a blog post explaining the move, Facebook said it was shutting off Australians’ ability to share news on its platform and for international publishers to reach Australian audiences on it because “the proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.”

It was almost immediately clear that Facebook had blocked much more than news. The Australian press and internal documents show that Facebook had also blocked pages for health services such as the Children’s Cancer Institute and Doctors Without Borders in Australia; fire and rescue services during fire season, including the Bureau of Meteorology and Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services; and emergency medical and domestic-violence services such as Mission Australia and the Hobart Women’s Shelter.

Facebook planning documents show that the company labeled a domain news if “60% [or] more of a domain’s content shared on Facebook is classified as news.” The decision resulted in the improper removal of many pages belonging to government, health and emergency services.

The health-service blackouts came just as the national Covid vaccine rollout was being announced on Feb. 18, with inoculations beginning on Feb. 22.

Shona Yang, the content manager for Mission Australia, a charity that provides housing and mental-health services, among other things, said her team monitors its Facebook inbox every morning for new inquiries and to respond to calls for assistance from the previous night. During the pandemic, Ms. Yang said, Mission Australia also used private Facebook Groups to stay connected to clients who needed help. She said many clients change phone numbers but use the same Facebook account, meaning the platform is a crucial way for the charity to keep in touch with people who need help.

On the morning of the news ban, staff members discovered they couldn’t share a post on Facebook. The group posted on other social-media channels, letting clients know how they could stay in touch. “Mission Australia is not a news outlet,” it wrote in an Instagram post. “We are a national Christian charity and the content we share on Facebook aims to help vulnerable people in our community.”

Ms. Yang said the charity’s media agency logged the issue with Facebook, and her team constantly refreshed Facebook’s blog and checked

Twitter

to see if the situation had changed. “It’s really disappointing to have been swept up in the proposed media bargaining laws as we are not a news outlet,” she said.

Inside Facebook, some employees were alarmed by the blocking of pages that shouldn’t have been and flagged the problem through Facebook’s internal tool that is used to track problems and their solutions. A broad range of employees can participate in and read the discussions on the internal logs.

“We took down pages that were clearly not owned by news publications,” wrote one employee, who was not on the team blocking pages, on the first day of the action, according to the internal logs. “Such pages include those operated by official government sources, fire and emergency services, universities, official health pages and charities for causes such as homelessness and domestic violence.”

The employee listed pages that had been improperly blocked and reinstated, such as the Bureau of Meteorology and City of Perth, as well as those still affected, such as the Women’s Legal Service Tasmania and WWF-Australia.

Employees noted in an internal log to track problems that pages were improperly being blocked. Later, the product manager wrote in the log that the team had been advised to be ‘overinclusive’ in the pages that were blocked.

“As part of these changes, we took down pages that were clearly not owned by news publications.”

“…the code we are responding to is extremely broad, so guidance from the policy and legal team has been to be overinclusive and refine as we get more information. We are iterating quickly to get more and more folks out of the block. ”

“As part of these changes, we took down pages that were clearly not owned by news publications.”

“…the code we are responding to is extremely broad, so guidance from the policy and legal team has been to be overinclusive and

refine as we get more information. We are iterating quickly to get more and more folks out of the block. ”

“As part of these changes, we took down pages that were clearly not owned by news publications.”

“…the code we are responding to is extremely broad, so guidance from the policy and legal team has been to be

overinclusive and refine as we get more information. We are iterating quickly to get more and more folks out of the block. ”

The employee proposed that Facebook should “proactively find all the affected pages and restore them.” The person added: “We should be proactive here, not reactive, given the damage this is doing to Facebook’s reputation in Australia.”

Facebook didn’t halt or reverse the process. It ramped up the takedown, expanding the use of the algorithm from 50% to 100% of all Australian users over the next several hours.

Mr. Stone said the reason for the quick rollout was Facebook’s fear of legal action.

This was contrary to typical Facebook procedure, which would be to use the “canary” method of testing a change on a small number of users, getting feedback about any problems, and adjusting the product before taking it to all users, according to people familiar with the takedown.

“The way this whole rollout was scheduled ran contrary to standard practices for rolling out major changes that might have potential side effects,” said one of those people.

Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of partnerships, spoke at an event in 2020.



Photo:

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

A few hours later, another employee not on the project’s team flagged the improper blocking in the internal logs, asking if there was a place where Facebook was tracking the “false positives.” The employee didn’t get a response, according to the documents.

Two hours later, the product manager for the team wrote in the internal logs: “Hey everyone—the [proposed Australian law] we are responding to is extremely broad, so guidance from the policy and legal team has been to be overinclusive and refine as we get more information.”

She then outlined the team’s plan to undo the improper blocking, including starting with “the most obvious cases” like government and healthcare pages, and the need to go to outside legal counsel for “more nuanced” cases.

Facebook employees familiar with the move to remove pages said this communication was notable because it didn’t refer to any efforts having been made to avoid blocking sensitive accounts and information ahead of time.

Facebook has many tools, such as “whitelists” that exclude some users from enforcement efforts, including XCheck, which ensures that high-profile users get special treatment, as the Journal previously reported. “Not even considering any of these tools before implementing the ban was not a technical glitch, but a choice,” the complaints allege.

The whistleblower documents show Facebook did attempt to exclude government and education pages. But people familiar with Facebook’s response said some of these lists malfunctioned at rollout, while other whitelists didn’t cover enough pages to avoid widespread improper blocking.

Facebook’s timeline

How Facebook’s removal of pages in Australia played out, according to whistleblower complaints filed with regulators, and the Australian government. (Dates are Australian time.)

  • July 31, 2020: Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, or ACCC, publishes its initial legislative proposal, which would automatically subject platforms such as Facebook and Google to a process that could lead to binding arbitration.
  • Aug. 31, 2020: Facebook announces it will remove news from the platform in Australia if the proposed legislation becomes law.
  • Feb. 17, 2021: Australian House of Representatives passes initial version of the bill, titled News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.
  • Feb. 18, 2021: Facebook begins taking down pages in Australia, which immediately brings up reports of widespread improper blocking both in the press and from Facebook employees.
  • Feb. 19, 2021: Facebook employees working on the team post internally that the project to take down pages is going according to plan.
  • Feb. 23, 2021: Facebook leadership reach a deal with the Australian government to alter the law in ways that allow tech companies to avoid its most onerous provision. Facebook’s first action after the deal is to unblock the page of the Australian government.
  • Feb. 24, 2021: The Australian Senate votes to approve the altered legislation. Within minutes, Facebook executives email congratulations to the team.
  • Feb. 25, 2021: Australian House of Representatives votes to approve the revised legislation incorporating the Senate amendments; Facebook reinstates pages it had taken down.
  • Feb. 26, 2021: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg emails congratulations to the team, praising their “precision of execution.”
  • March 1, 2021: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emails congratulations, calling it the “best possible outcome.”

On the first day of the action, Facebook executives discussed that the platform had blocked about 17,000 pages as news that shouldn’t have been, of which 2,400 were “high priority” pages such as government agencies and nonprofits that they were working to unblock first, according to emails viewed by the Journal.

Three days later, Brian Rosenthal, the engineering director who led the team taking down pages, wrote in the internal log tracking problems that the group had “manually reviewed all” of the affected pages in Australia and “re-instated all of the pages where our manual reviews indicated we should re-instate,” with exceptions for things like pages that Facebook strongly believed its algorithm had classified correctly.

On Feb. 21, four days into the takedown, the employee who had earlier asked if the company was tracking false positives wrote: “Is there a reason the pages were not reviewed this way before the rollout? I think it would have been a smoother rollout if more checks were performed beforehand and the important Government health pages were not accidentally blocked.”

“We’re focused mostly still debugging the active situation but will afterward post-mortem it,” Mr. Rosenthal responded in the log.

On Feb. 23, Facebook and Australian officials came to a handshake deal to change the proposed law, including adding language that allowed the Australian Treasurer to weigh private deals between publishers and platforms before “designating” a platform, a label that would require it to take part in the government-sanctioned negotiation process with publishers that could end with binding final-offer arbitration.

The previous version of the law automatically subjected platforms like Facebook to the negotiation process, which the platforms considered unworkable and onerous.

According to internal documents, Facebook’s first action after the handshake deal was reached was to manually unblock the page of the Australian national government—a change that required just three lines of code.

Mr. Stone said the Australian government didn’t inform Facebook that the page was blocked until Feb. 22. “We took action shortly after they let us know it was down,” he said.

Australian officials explained the change in the law when announcing the agreement by saying that Facebook had agreed to forge deals with publishers on its own.

Two hours later, Facebook’s Ms. Brown announced the agreement publicly, saying “it will allow us to support the publishers we choose to.”

The next day, the Australian Senate voted to approve the changes to the law. Minutes later, Ms. Brown emailed her congratulations to the team. The day after that, the Australian House voted the changes into law, and Facebook rolled back its takedown, reinstating all the pages it had blocked.

Over the next couple of days, Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Zuckerberg emailed their congratulations to the team, with Mr. Zuckerberg writing, “This is something we’d been preparing for, but the last couple of weeks were really intense,” adding that the company had achieved “the best possible outcome in Australia.”

The Australian government is conducting a review of the first year of the law and asking for comments to improve it.

Paul Fletcher, the Australian communications minister, pointed to the deals that Google and Facebook have made with at least 19 and 11 news organizations, respectively, in Australia, to pay them a total of more than $100 million a year, as evidence that the law is working.

Google’s Ms. Crider said her company has done 60 deals with publishers in Australia representing 170 publications.

Mr. Stone said Facebook has done deals in Australia with 13 publishers, representing 200 newsrooms.

As a result, the companies haven’t been “designated” by the treasurer, meaning they don’t have to take part in the government-sanctioned negotiation process with publishers.

Mr. Sims, the former chair of the Australian competition regulator, said Facebook could be “designated” by the treasurer because it has refused to do deals with two organizations that he said qualify as news outlets—The Conversation, a website known for publishing articles from academics, and

SBS,

a television and radio broadcaster.

Write to Keach Hagey at [email protected], Mike Cherney at [email protected] and Jeff Horwitz at [email protected]

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