Facebook has left itself open to class-action lawsuits and could even face prosecution after the pages of hundreds of charities, groups and government agencies were “unconscionably” caught up in the platform’s wiping of Australian news content this week.
In retaliation to the federal government’s proposed Mandatory News Media Bargaining Code, the tech giant blocked Australian users from accessing news on Thursday morning.
However, many small businesses, support groups, charities and public interest pages like the Bureau of Meteorology and state health departments were also wiped, prompting the former chair of Australia’s competition watchdog to urge the social media juggernaut to be cautious.
Allan Fels, the chair of Public Interest Journalism and the former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said Facebook was not demonstrating their social license to operate.
“It is unconscionable for Facebook to limit access to Australian Government information, be it weather, health or bushfire information,” Professor Fells said in a statement.
“This is not ‘news’, nor content envisaged under the Mandatory News Bargaining Code … (which) seeks to address a significant market power imbalance.
“That is the role of the ACCC and government, to ensure a level playing field.”
Prof Fels told The Daily Telegraph the social media platform could face legal action over its decision.
“Facebook could be liable for breach of unconscionable conduct laws due to the overnight cessation of services to businesses, especially small businesses that largely require Facebook to disseminate their product,” Prof Fels told the Telegraph.
“To (withdraw services) overnight in this fashion could put them in breach of unconscionable conduct laws and could possibly be a class action.”
Prof Fels said the digital platforms had previously demonstrated a lack of willingness to negotiate with news organisations around the value of their content in the generation of digital advertising.
“The costs of producing public interest journalism are high, but it is integral to the functioning of any working democracy,” he said.
“We urge Facebook to sit at the table and negotiate in good faith.”
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is expected to hold further talks with the network’s founder Mark Zuckerberg this weekend, as many non-news profiles remain blank.