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Facebook blocks news from Australia, dozens of public information pages wiped

SYDNEY, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Australians woke to empty news feeds in their Facebook Inc accounts on Thursday after the social media giant blocked all local media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.

The move was swiftly criticised by several local media outlets and lawmakers, many of whom pointed out that official health department pages and government meteorology pages had also been scrubbed - during the coronavirus pandemic and at the height of Australia’s summer bushfire season.

“So Facebook can instantly block @abcperth, @6PR, @BOM_au, @BOM_WA, AND @dfes_wa in the middle of the #bushfire season, but they can’t take down murderous gun crime videos? Incredible. Unbelievable. Unacceptable. The arrogance,” wrote Madeleine King, a federal opposition member of parliament from Western Australia, in a tweet.

Lisa Davies, editor of daily The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, owned by Nine Entertainment Co Ltd, tweeted: “Well, that’s a tantrum. Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform.”

The Facebook pages of Nine, News Corp, and the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp, which acts as a central information source during natural disasters, were blank.

The Facebook pages of the Queensland and South Australia state health departments, where a quarter of the country’s 25 million population are directed for reliable information about COVID-19, were similarly blank.

The Bureau of Meteorology, an official source for advice about bushfire danger, flooding and other natural disasters, was also scrubbed.

Facebook’s drastic move comes ahead of the likely imposition of an Australia law that would require Big Tech firms, including Google, to reach commercial deals with Australian news outlets to use their content, or be subjected to forced arbitration.

Facebook said in its statement that the law “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers.

Google, owned by Alphabet Inc, had previously threatened to pull out of Australia because of the looming law, but has in recent days signed deals with several media outlets.

Reporting by Byron Kaye; editing by Jane Wardell

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