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19 February 2021

On 18 February 2021, Facebook blocked people in Australia from being able to access news on its platform in protest to the Federal government’s proposed media laws. While the demonstration was intended to justify Facebooks’ reluctance to pay for news it represents, its impact on the most vulnerable in the community has created significant digital access issues for people with disability.

The proposed Australian law is designed to make social media platforms like Google and Facebook pay for the content it references on its platform, providing publishers with some revenue to compensate for the advertising Facebook makes from hosting the news feed. The position of Google and Facebook has been that their search and hosting of news provides far more promotion to the publishers than it receives in return and therefore shouldn’t have to pay to pay for it.

However, in recent days there has been a change of heart by Google who has quietly made deals with Nine, Seven West and Newscorp in response to the proposed law. Meanwhile Facebook has taken a different approach by removing its news as a demonstration of what people would miss out on if the law were passed.

While Facebook may have been under the impression that people would support its move, the outcry to date has been very much against Facebook due to the overreach the platform took in not just blocking news, but blocking content relating to government, healthcare, support services and charities on their respective Facebook pages.

In relation to digital access, the removal of content relating to mental health, the Western Australian bushfire services in the midst of bushfire emergencies, removal of Queensland flood warnings and the removal of critical information that directly supports people with disability and mental health has been particularly significant. In addition, the blocking of government advice and health information in the midst of a global pandemic, especially at a time when the COVID-19 vaccines are scheduled to roll out in a matter of days leaves people particularly vulnerable as many Australians would turn to Facebook to find out about this process.

There are also issues for people with disability regarding their ability to access information about an upcoming state election in Western Australia due to the opposition leader’s Facebook page being part of the blackout, while the current Premier’s page remains untouched. This has the potential to reduce the ability for people to make informed choices about their voting preferences.

Centre For Accessibility (CFA) Australia’s CEO Dr Scott Hollier stated “Facebook has worked hard over the years  to improve its accessibility. This has seen Facebook become a popular platform for people with disability to gain access to news. The ban of critical information that supports the community is a fundamental breach of trust that leaves people with disability to once again try to find news sources that may or may not be accessible.”

CFA Australia encourages all Australian Facebook users that can no longer access critical information in an accessible way to get in touch so we can assist in finding accessible alternatives.

CFA Australia also requests that Facebook consider the digital access implications of its actions and restores all content on its platform as quickly as possible so that vital news, health, election and support services remain available in an accessible form.