Facebook on Thursday announced that it has blocked Australians from sharing news on the social media platform, AP reported. The ban includes blocking links to Australian and overseas news publishers.

Facebook said the ban was a direct response to the Australian federal government’s news media code legislation, which is expected to become law soon and would require digital platforms such as Facebook and Google to pay news media companies whose content they host.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook said in a statement. “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.”

Australian publishers can continue to publish news content on Facebook, but links and posts can’t be viewed or shared by Australian audiences, the company said. Additionally, Australian users cannot share Australian or international news. International users outside Australia also cannot share Australian news.

The changes affecting news content will not otherwise change Facebook’s products and services in Australia. “We want to assure the millions of Australians using Facebook to connect with friends and family, grow their businesses and join Groups to help support their local communities, that these services will not change,” the social media platform said.

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They ‘think they are bigger than governments’

The move was swiftly criticised by the Australian government. “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison wrote on his own Facebook page, using the vernacular for cutting ties with another person on the site.

“These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”

Crucial pages for citizens go blank

The changes made by Facebook wiped clean pages operated by news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharing Australian news, Reuters reported. Incidentally, the action came three days before the country begins its nationwide coronavirus vaccination programme.

The Facebook pages of Nine and News Corp, which together dominate the country’s metro newspaper market, and the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp, which acts as a central information source during natural disasters, were blank.

Several major state government accounts were also affected, including those providing advice on the coronavirus pandemic and bushfire threats at the height of the summer season, and scores of charity and non-governmental organisation accounts.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley confirmed the government’s Bureau of Meteorology’s page “has been impacted by the sudden Facebook news content restrictions”, urging people to visit the website instead, according to AFP. This happened as the bureau issued a series of flash flooding warnings for parts of Queensland state after heavy rainfall overnight.

The Western Australia fire department’s Facebook page was also wiped clean as the state braced for “catastrophic fire danger” conditions. Western Australian MP Madeleine King called the sudden blackout, “Incredible. Unbelievable. Unacceptable”.