Can a whole country be deplatformed? That question confronts all of Australia today, as Facebook (for Facebook, read Mark Zuckerberg, who autocratically controls the social media giant) suddenly went nuclear, blocking all postings from news sites by its Australian users, and blocking those same users from seeing news postings from any source, anywhere in the world.
All of this seemingly in response to a law that hasn’t even passed through Parliament.
It feels like a dummy spit for the ages, the kind of moment that historians will simply chuckle over—and it is. But there’s much more here: never before in history has any technology firm gone head-to-head with the legitimate democratic apparatus of a highly advanced state. Australia is neither an economic backwater nor new to the Internet.
That’s what makes this all a bit terrifying.
The cheek of it: a trillion-dollar social media firm twists a few dials, drops in some barely-functioning algorithms—that blocked NASA and The Betoota Advocate along with the ABC, News, Seven and Nine—and voila! the entire media landscape alters, bringing the nation’s focus to a foreign technology firm that appears to be acting to interrupt the legislative workings of a democratic sovereign power.
If Facebook had acted after the bill had passed through Parliament, after the Governor General had given the law royal assent, then, perhaps, it would have seemed somewhat proportionate—just a protection of business interests.
Happening now—in the middle of the political process, and seemingly designed to derail that process—it feels a bit more like the Capitol Insurrection: a bit of violent theatre designed to derail another political process.
Does Facebook truly believe that their actions will change the political outcome? Or are they sending a signal to other sovereign powers—such as the EU, India and the USA—that Facebook is itself a sovereign power, and will use that power to assert its own interests?
Both of these alternatives feel like a scenario from dystopian science fiction. Yet this is the problem we now find ourselves in with Big Tech. We’ve nurtured these firms with our attention and our dollars, both of which they’ve converted to raw power. And now, when that power has been turned against us, we recognise the true cost of our addictions to our newsfeeds, our community groups—even those status updates from our families. All of it fed a monster, now unleashed, wreaking havoc with Australia’s democratic interests.
I’m sure we will stare that monster down. Australians really don’t like to be bullied. But we mustn’t forget this moment, when Big Tech decided that its own prerogatives overruled those of a sovereign state.
Because if we do forget—or ever again turn our backs on Facebook—we could find ourselves and our democracy undone.
Mark Pesce is a futurist, writer and speaker. He has written previously on Facebook for Meanjin: The Last Days of Reality.