Facebook news goes dark in Australia as content spat escalates

Facebook’s drastic move represents a split from Alphabet Inc-owned Google after they initially joined together to campaign against the laws. (File/AFP)
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Updated 18 February 2021
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Facebook news goes dark in Australia as content spat escalates

  • The move was swiftly criticized by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates
  • Frydenberg said Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg gave no warning of the news shutdown when the pair spoke over the weekend

SYDNEY: Australians woke to empty news feeds on their Facebook Inc. pages on Thursday after the social media giant blocked all media content in a surprise and dramatic escalation of a dispute with the government over paying for content.
The move was swiftly criticized by news producers, politicians and human rights advocates, particularly as it became clear that official health pages, emergency safety warnings and welfare networks had all been scrubbed from the site along with news.
“Facebook was wrong, Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed, and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a televised news conference.
Frydenberg said Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg gave no warning of the news shutdown when the pair spoke over the weekend about looming laws that will force both Facebook and search engine giant Google to pay local publishers for content.
The two men had a subsequent conversation on Thursday morning which was “constructive,” Frydenberg said, adding they discussed what he called “differing interpretations” about how the new Media Bargaining Code would work.
Facebook’s drastic move represents a split from Alphabet Inc-owned Google after they initially joined together to campaign against the laws. Both had threatened to cancel services in Australia, but Google has instead sealed preemptive deals with several outlets in recent days.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. was the latest to announce a deal in which it will receive “significant payments” from Google in return for providing content for the search engine’s News Showcase account.
Google declined to comment on the Facebook decision on Thursday.
The Australian law would require Facebook and Google to reach commercial deals with news outlets whose links drive traffic to their platforms, or be subjected to forced arbitration to agree a price.
Facebook said in its statement that the law, which is expected to be passed by parliament within days, “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers and it faced a stark choice of attempting to comply or banning news content.
Blank Pages

The changes made by Facebook wiped clean pages operated by news outlets and removed posts by individual users sharing Australian news, three days before the country begins a nationwide vaccination program to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Lisa Davies, editor of daily The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, owned by Nine Entertainment Co. Ltd, tweeted: “Facebook has exponentially increased the opportunity for misinformation, dangerous radicalism and conspiracy theories to abound on its platform.”
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.
Also affected were several major state government accounts, 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 organization accounts.
“This is UNACCEPTABLE,” tweeted Brianna Casey, chief executive of hunger relief charity Foodbank.
“Demand for food relief has never been higher than during this pandemic, and one of our primary comms tools to help connect people with #foodrelief info & advice is now unavailable. Hours matter when you have nothing to eat. SORT THIS OUT!“
SOME PAGES RESTORED
By mid-afternoon, many government-backed Facebook pages were restored but several charity pages and all media sites remained dark, including those of international outlets like the New York Times, the BBC and News Corp’s Wall Street Journal.
A Facebook representative in Australia did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the situation. Facebook Australia’s own page was down for a period of time before being restored.
“This is an alarming and dangerous turn of events,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement. “Cutting off access to vital information to an entire country in the dead of the night is unconscionable.”
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Facebook had sent the message to Australians that “you will not find content on our platform which comes from an organization which employs professional journalists, which has editorial policies, which has fact-checking processes.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt said Facebook pages of numerous community health projects had been shuttered and “the fact that the kids cancer project could be affected, is, frankly a disgrace.”


Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board adopts executive strategy

  • New committee for press freedoms established
  • 100-day plan endorsed, several proposals to start immediately

RIYADH: The Saudi Journalists Association’s newly elected board approved on Wednesday an executive strategy which will see several new committees established and a number of proposals fast tracked over the next 100 days.

The move came during the board’s second meeting, led by Adhwan Al-Ahmari, the association’s chairman, which took place on the sidelines of the Saudi Media Forum, held at the Riyadh Hilton Hotel.

Newly established dedicated committees will oversee the implementation of the association’s approved plan. These include an Executive Committee, responsible for setting interim targets and addressing urgent issues, and the Review and Performance Committee, tasked with monitoring performance, assessing committee effectiveness, and ensuring target fulfillment.

The Press Freedoms Committee will establish frameworks, implement plans, and collaborate with international media organizations to safeguard press freedoms.

In order to provide the association with a more robust foundation for its operations, the board has also decided to form a Committee for Developing Financial Resources, which will explore methods to generate income and ensure sustainability.

The Members and Relations Committee will manage the members’ affairs, while the Training Committee is tasked with crafting short-term and long-term training programs, as well as fostering partnerships with local and international universities and training centers.

The Events Committee will create executive plans for the association’s events and will develop a standardized criteria for internal and external activities, while the Content Committee is responsible for establishing a comprehensive editorial policy for all postings, as well as overseeing and improving the association’s website.

The board of directors endorsed a 100-day plan for the implementation of all proposals. The plan will be revised during the board’s next meeting.

The meeting of the board also discussed forming a club for journalists, which will be headquartered in Riyadh and operated by the association.

The board examined legal protection for media workers who are members of the association, in line with its regulations.

The board members emphasized the significance of expanding membership to include media students and trainees, providing them with a special membership to learn from professional journalists.

The meeting also discussed securing funding sources and establishing governance for the association’s fund for supporting journalists.


Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

Updated 22 February 2024
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Mehdi Hasan joins The Guardian US following abrupt departure from MSNBC

  • Hasan will be regular commentator with first column Wednesday urging US president to end Gaza ‘genocide’
  • MSNBC cancelled ‘The Mehdi Hasan Show’ in January amid widespread criticisms

LONDON: Former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan is moving to The Guardian US following his sudden exit from the network last month.

The British-American writer and broadcaster, known for his award-winning work, will be a regular columnist for the American online presence of the British newspaper.

Its US editor, Betsy Reed, said Hasan’s addition would enhance the publication’s political commentary, advocacy for human rights and free speech, and accountability for those in power.

Hasan’s debut column, published on Wednesday, urged American President Joe Biden to pressure the Israeli government to end what he described as the “genocide” of Palestinians in Gaza.

Hasan said: “I have been poring over columns in The Guardian since I was a teenager. Now I get to write some of my own, in what is perhaps one of the busiest and biggest news years of my lifetime. It’s a huge honor and a privilege.”

The move came after Hasan’s MSNBC “The Mehdi Hasan Show” was abruptly cancelled by the network. While his programs did not always draw large audiences on MSNBC, his passionate monologues and incisive interviews earned him a significant online following, often leading to viral clips.

The timing of the show’s cancellation raised eyebrows, coinciding with Hasan’s criticism of Israel’s actions during its conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

Media analysts and fellow journalists have raised concerns that ending Hasan’s show had left American audiences without a crucial voice in the corporate news landscape during times of ongoing conflict.

The Guardian US has been expanding its team, adding prominent columnists and an investigative unit, reflecting the growing interest in British media among American audiences.


‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

Updated 21 February 2024
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‘We should kill them all:’ Outrage erupts over US congressman’s Gaza comments

  • Words ‘indicate US complicity’ in suffering, experts warn
  • Controversial video emerged as US vetoed UN ceasefire resolution for 3rd time

LONDON: A US congressman has sparked outrage after claiming “we should kill them all” in reference to Palestinians in Gaza.

US representative for Tennessee’s fifth congressional district Andy Ogles was approached by a group of pro-Palestine activists in Washington on Tuesday.

He was told by one activist: “I’ve seen the footage of shredded children’s bodies. That’s my taxpayer dollars that are going to bomb those kids.”

Ogles responded: “You know what? So, I think we should kill them all, if that makes you feel better. Hamas and the Palestinians have been attacking Israel for 20 years. It’s time to pay the piper.”

The shocking video of the Republican congressman has sparked widespread condemnation across social media, with experts warning that Ogles’s words are indicative of Washington’s complicity in suffering in Gaza.

“For those of you wondering how the Nazis, Daesh, etc. can kill people indiscriminately, now you are witnessing leaders and prominent people in the so-called enlightened democratic societies demonstrating that blind adherence to any ideology can make ordinary people into evil monsters,” lawyer, author and human rights activists Faisal Kutty said X.

“These people have all sold their souls to the highest bidder,” he added.

Ogles, known for his staunch, unconditional support for Israel, previously voted to censure congresswoman member Rashida Tlaib over allegations she had supported the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel. Ogles has also proposed legislation preventing Palestinians from entering the US.

The outrage over Ogles’s comments comes as the Biden administration faces growing criticism over its vetoing of a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council. It marked the third veto by the US since Oct. 7.

UNICEF has warned of a potential surge in preventable child deaths in Gaza due to malnutrition and disease. Save the Children’s Jason Lee described the situation as “astronomical” and warned that words cannot capture the scale of death and destruction in the enclave.

Israeli forces have reportedly killed more than 12,400 children in Gaza since Oct. 7, with more than 600,000 children now trapped in Rafah. Save the Children highlighted the alarming rate of amputations, with more than 10 children per day in Gaza, on average, losing one or both of their legs since October.


From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events

Updated 21 February 2024
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From Berlinale to Eurovision, anger over Gaza clouds Europe’s cultural events

  • Gaza war has casted shadow over European cultural life after anger at Israel offensive flares in France, Italy, Britain
  • Artists have chosen to boycott the Berlin Film Festival in protest against Germany's alleged suppression of pro-Palestinian voices

BERLIN: Indian-American filmmaker Suneil Sanzgiri was set to showcase his film about anti-colonial resistance against the Portuguese empire at this month’s Berlinale film festival but dropped out.
Announcing his boycott on Instagram, Sanzgiri accused the German authorities of silencing voices speaking out for Palestinians in the war in Gaza. “I will not be complicit. We all have blood on our hands,” he wrote.
Sanzgiri’s is one of at least three films that were withdrawn by their creators, while other events at the festival also saw artists pulling out.
The withdrawals showed the tricky waters Germany’s cultural institutions are navigating, caught between protecting artistic freedoms while recognizing what many Germans see as a historic responsibility for Israel after the Nazi Holocaust.
Such disputes have also flared elsewhere in Europe since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants. The European Broadcasting Union has resisted calls for Israel to be excluded from the Eurovision Song Contest.
Protests erupted in the Italian city of Naples in February after state broadcaster RAI distanced itself from an appeal made by rapper Ghali to “stop the genocide” during the closing night of the popular Sanremo Music Festival.
In Britain, a network of artists has been documenting events that were axed over artists’ pro-Palestinian views. The Arnolfini art gallery in Bristol also sparked a backlash after canceling two Palestinian film events, fearing they could “stray into political activity.”
In France, a group of artists in November organized a “silent march” where they held a white banner with no slogans.

STRIKE GERMANY
In Germany, anger over the Israeli offensive in Gaza, which has killed 29,000 Palestinians, has clashed with sensibilities over supporting Israel. Critics say crackdowns on pro-Palestinian voices confuse criticism with legitimate protest.
As cultural events are often state supported, critics say the government has used its financial power to prevent any criticism of Israel, a charge the government strongly rejects.
“Freedom of art and freedom of expression are among the most important basic principles of democracy in Germany, which are of course also protected by the federal government,” a spokesperson for the culture ministry said.
“The institutions and projects funded at the federal level have curatorial freedom and decide for themselves which artists they work with,” the spokesperson added.
While announcing his Berlinale boycott, filmmaker Sanzgiri voiced support for Strike Germany, an initiative launched by anonymous artists in January calling on filmmakers, musicians, writers and artists to withdraw from cultural events in Germany.
“It is a call to refuse German cultural institutions’ use of McCarthyist policies that suppress freedom of expression, specifically expressions of solidarity with Palestine,” the organizers wrote.
Some 1,600 artists have signed up, according a list on the initiative’s website, including French Nobel prize winner Annie Ernaux. Reuters could not verify the list’s authenticity.
Last month, Berlin’s CTM music festival announced several artists withdrawing in solidarity with Strike Germany.
Strike Germany calls for the adoption of a different definition of anti-Semitism that does not include criticism of the state of Israel.
The Berlinale has not shied away from the Gaza issue. It is hosting a so-called Tiny House initiative, a small space inviting disparate voices to debate the war. One of the films spotlighted Israeli settlers encroaching on land.
It is one of several cultural events in Germany clouded by anger over Gaza.
Hundreds of international writers condemned the Frankfurt Book Fair after a Palestinian writer’s award was postponed in October. In November, the entire selection committee for one of Europe’s most important art exhibitions, “documenta,” resigned after disputes over the Israel-Hamas conflict.


Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta

Updated 21 February 2024
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Google releases ‘open’ AI models after Meta

  • Individuals and businesses can build AI software based on Google’s new family of “open models” called Gemma, for free

SAN FRANCISCO: Google on Wednesday released new artificial intelligence (AI) models that outside developers potentially can fashion as their own, following a similar move by Meta Platforms and others.
The Alphabet subsidiary said individuals and businesses can build AI software based on its new family of “open models” called Gemma, for free. The company is making key technical data such as what are called model weights publicly available, it said.
The move may attract software engineers to build on Google’s technology and encourage usage of its newly profitable cloud division. The models are “optimized” for Google Cloud, where first-time cloud customers using them get $300 in credits, the company said.
Google stopped short of making Gemma fully “open source,” meaning the company still may have a hand in setting terms of use and ownership. Some experts have said open-source AI was ripe for abuse, while others have championed the approach for widening the set of people who can contribute to and benefit from the technology.
With the announcement, Google did not make its bigger, premier models known as Gemini open, unlike Gemma. It said the Gemma models are sized at two billion or seven billion parameters — or the number of different values that an algorithm takes into account to generate output.
Meta’s Llama 2 models range from seven to 70 billion parameters in size. Google has not disclosed the size of its largest Gemini models. For comparison, OpenAI’s GPT-3 model announced in 2020 had 175 billion parameters.
Chipmaker Nvidia on Wednesday said it has worked with Google to ensure Gemma models run smoothly on its chips. Nvidia also said it will soon make chatbot software, which it is developing to run AI models on Windows PCs, work with Gemma.