Facebook whistleblowers accused the social network of intentionally blocking Australian government and emergency health official pages last year to influence a proposed law. CNET has obtained and is publishing the whistleblowers’ disclosures provided to Congress.
Filed with US and Australian authorities in March and April, the documents describe alleged internal efforts at Facebook to break a February 2021 standoff with the Australian government. Australia was considering a bill that would force online platforms, including Facebook, to pay publishers for news items posted on their sites. Facebook responded to the proposed law byon the social network. (CNET was among the news publishers affected by this move.)
The whistleblower disclosures, which include redacted passages from internal Facebook communications, allege the news blackout was intentionally broad so that it would prevent access to government and health services pages. At the time, Facebook blamed those mistakes on problems with its computer systems.
The 67-page disclosures, parts of which have been reported by The Wall Street Journal, include Facebook’s internal plans to take down “news content” as Australian lawmakers considered voting on the new law. A senior congressional staffer, who requested anonymity because the disclosures haven’t been released publicly, provided them to CNET. The whistleblowers aren’t named in the disclosures for fear of retaliation.
The disclosures are among a growing string of whistleblower leaks from Facebook, whichlast year. Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, provided a different cache of Facebook documents that prompted hearings in Congress and the UK Parliament. The new disclosures could generate similar governmental investigations in Australia.
Together, the whistleblower disclosures portray the company’s aggressive and sometimes deceptive business practices. In response, lawmakers and regulators, who were already skeptical of the tech industry’s immense power over global communication, have raised new concerns about the motivations of Facebook executives and their willingness to correct problems on the platform.
In one case, The Journal reported that Meta’s Instagram social network had been aware of negative impacts on younger users of its app but failed to act. In another, Haugen accused the company of putting profits ahead of user safety.
Some of Haugen’s whistleblower documents, which were also shared with CNET and a consortium of publications, detailed how Facebook struggles to rein in harassment in its next big technology, virtual reality.
Now, the new whistleblowers are accusing Facebook of exerting its power over another government — and at a time when British, Canadian and US lawmakers are considering similar rules as those in Australia. The whistleblowers have urged the Department of Justice to investigate.
The whistleblower disclosures claim Facebook hadn’t followed its standard processes when it began blocking news in Australia. The complaint accused the company of attempting to influence Australia’s political process “to maximize the company’s negotiating leverage.”
In a summary of the disclosures transmitted to authorities, Whistleblower Aid, which is working with the “multiple whistleblowers,” wrote: “Facebook Inc. deliberately and knowingly over-blocked critical Australian emergency, health and government online resources as part of a criminal conspiracy to obtain a thing of value, namely favorable regulatory treatment.”
Whistleblower Aid is a nonprofit legal organization that helps “individuals who lawfully report government and corporate law breaking.” The organization also works with Haugen, the earlier Facebook leaker.
Erin Miller, a spokeswoman for Meta, said in an emailed statement on May 5 that the whistleblower documents “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. 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.”
Miller declined to provide additional comment about the new disclosures.
The disclosures show that at least three Facebook employees raised concerns about blocking pages that weren’t managed by news publishers. The employees also proposed solutions, such as proactively finding all the pages that have been mistakenly blocked and restoring them. The whistleblower disclosures note the team in charge of rolling out the news blackout ignored them, the complaint says.
Congress is considering a bill that would expand whistleblower protections for people reporting potential or suspected violations of any law, rule or regulation enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC Whistleblower Protection Act would also offer financial incentives to encourage potential whistleblowers “to take the significant risk of coming forward would substantially enhance the FTC’s ability to detect and combat deceptive trade practices,” the National Law Review wrote after the bill was introduced last year. “An FTC whistleblower reward program could spur whistleblowers at social media and technology companies to disclose data privacy and security practices that harm consumers.”
The senior congressional staffer who provided the document to CNET expressed concern that Congress is losing its appetite to push investigations and pursue potential laws that would rein in the tech industry.
“This is another in a long line of pieces of evidence that show that the regulatory oversight of social media is inadequate,” the staffer said.