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In shock move, Facebook blocks news access in Australia

Associated Press

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Facebook blocks news access in Australia

In a shocking act of retaliation Thursday, Facebook blocked Australians from sharing news, a milestone in the increasingly frantic jockeying between governments, media and powerful tech companies that one Australian minister called “an assault on a sovereign nation” and abuse of power.

Australia’s government condemned the decision, which also prevented some government communications, including messages about emergency services, as well as some commercial pages. The digital platforms fear that what’s happening in Australia will become an expensive precedent that larger countries will follow.

Facebook took the drastic action because the House of Representatives passed legislation that would make Facebook and Google pay for Australian journalism, said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who added that he was given no warning before Facebook acted. The legislation needs to be passed by the Senate before it becomes law.

“Facebook’s actions were unnecessary, they were heavy-handed and they will damage its reputation here in Australia,” Frydenberg said.

Facebook said the proposed Australian law “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it.”

“This is an assault on a sovereign nation,” Health Minster Greg Hunt told Parliament. “It is an assault on people’s freedom and, in particular, it’s an utter abuse of big technologies’ market power and control over technology.”

Both Google and Facebook have threatened retaliation if Australia created the law, which the government contends will ensure media businesses receive fair payment for their journalism being linked on those platforms.

Australia’s proposal requires a negotiation safety net through an arbitration panel. The digital giants would not be able to abuse their dominant negotiating positions by making take-it-or-leave-it payment offers to news businesses for their journalism. If a news business refused to budge, the panel would make a binding decision on a winning offer.

Facebook had threatened to block access to Australian news rather than pay for it under the proposed News Media Bargaining Code. Google had threatened to remove its search functions from Australia because it said the proposed law was unworkable.

But Google’s threat has faded as it quickly stitches up licensing content deals with Australian media companies under its own News Showcase model.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. announced a wide-ranging deal with Google on Wednesday. Major Australian media organization Seven West Media reached a deal earlier in the week. Their rival Nine Entertainment is reportedly close to its own pact, and state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp. is in negotiations.

The government accused Facebook of endangering public safety by temporarily blocking state emergency services messaging on a day when there were severe fire and flood warnings in various parts of Australia.

The Bureau of Meteorology’s weather warnings, a Hobart women’s shelter and the Betoota Advocate, a satirical website named after an Australian ghost town, were among those surprised to find their content blocked at least temporarily.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said he had told Facebook that the government expected access to its pages to be restored.

“The fact that there are organizations like state health departments, fire and emergency services … who have had their Facebook pages blocked, that’s a public safety issue,” Fletcher said.

Facebook said in a statement: “Any pages that are inadvertently impacted, we’ll look to reverse.”

Health Minster Greg Hunt said the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne still didn’t have its feed fixed more than eight hours later.

Frydenberg said he had “constructive” discussions with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg after the content blocking began.

“He did explain to me that they had concerns with aspects of the code, and it goes to the interpretation of some of its elements. And he will come back to me with some more considered views,” Frydenberg said.

Frydenberg said his government remained committed to the code that was delivering generous payment deals with Google for Australian media.

“Other countries are watching, but also Google and Facebook and other digital giants are very focused on what it means, as far as a precedent goes, for other countries,” Frydenberg said.

News Corp. said it would receive “significant payments” from Google in the three-year agreement, which includes heavyweight news organizations throughout the English-speaking world, such as The Wall Street Journal and New York Post in the U.S., the Times and the Sun in the U.K., and The Australian and Sky News in Australia. The deal spans audio and video and News Corp. will also get an ad revenue share from Google.

Frydenberg said after weekend talks with Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, that he was convinced the platforms “do want to enter into these commercial arrangements.”

“It’s a massive step forward we have seen this week,” Frydenberg said of the Google deals.

“But if this was easy, every other country in the world would have done it already. But they haven’t,” he said.

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — By ROD McGUIRK

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Some GOP state lawmakers help spread COVID-19 misinformation

Associated Press

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Some GOP state lawmakers help spread COVID-19 misinformation

Many Republican lawmakers have criticized governors’ emergency restrictions since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Now that most legislatures are back in session, a new type of pushback is taking root: misinformation.

In their own comments or by inviting skeptics to testify at legislative hearings, some GOP state lawmakers are using their platform to promote false information about the virus, the steps needed to limit its spread and the vaccines that will pull the nation out of the pandemic.

In some cases, the misstatements have faced swift backlash, even getting censored online. That’s raised tough questions about how aggressively to combat potentially dangerous misinformation from elected officials or during legislative hearings while protecting free speech and people’s access to government.

Last week, YouTube pulled down a video of committee testimony in the Ohio House after a witness inaccurately claimed COVID-19 wasn’t killing children. The platform said the video violated its community standards against the spread of misinformation.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology project, said YouTube went too far.

“When we’re talking about testimony that occurred at a public hearing, the far better response would be counterspeech, maybe in the form of fact-checking or labeling, rather than this attempt to flush it down the memory hole,” Wizner said.

But opposing voices aren’t always present in committee hearings.

In Michigan, for example, a House Oversight Committee meeting didn’t feature state health officials or other virus experts in a discussion about an extended pause on youth contact sports ordered by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

It did include Jayme McElvany, a virus skeptic who also has posted about the QAnon conspiracy and former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud. Founder of a group called Let Them Play, McElvany questioned mask mandates and the science behind state COVID-19 data during a legislative hearing that didn’t feature any witnesses from the other side. The committee chairman, Republican Rep. Steven Johnson, said the state health department was invited to testify but did not. Legislative Republicans have been challenging decisions of the Whitmer administration throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Wizner said such imbalances need to be highlighted, not suppressed.

“People need to know this is what passes for local government,” he said. When the hearings are posted online, YouTube owner Google has plenty of tools for flagging questionable information and directing people to facts, Wizner said.

In Tennessee, a Republican lawmaker is pushing legislation that would ban most government agencies from requiring anyone to get COVID-19 vaccines, which isn’t a mandate anywhere. Rep. Bud Hulsey has tried to drum up support downplaying the seriousness of the disease.

While testifying, he ticked off selective statistics that COVID-19 has a lower death rate among children and falsely alleged that the vaccines could cause genetic modifications.

Hulsey faced pushback from a fellow Republican, Rep. Sabi Kumar, a surgeon who has been a rare GOP advocate for proper mask-wearing while lawmakers gather at the Tennessee Capitol.

“The concern I have is that (the bill) creates an anti-vaccine attitude,” Kumar said.

Kumar pointed out that vaccines have saved countless lives throughout the centuries and repeatedly fact-checked Hulsey by emphasizing that the vaccines don’t change a person’s DNA.

Hulsey wasn’t convinced.

“People have seen governments all across this country do things that have never ever happened in the history of the United States, and it scares them,” he said. “They have every right to be afraid.”

His bill has advanced out of a House subcommittee.

In Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is fighting what he called a pattern of misrepresentations by state Sen. Lora Reinbold, a fellow Republican, saying he would no longer send members of his administration before her Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a scathing Feb. 18 letter that referenced her Facebook posts, Dunleavy accused Reinbold of misrepresenting the state’s COVID-19 response and deceiving the public.

“The misinformation must end,” the governor wrote.

Reinbold has been a vocal critic of Dunleavy issuing disaster declarations while the Legislature wasn’t in session. She has used her committee to amplify voices of those who question the effectiveness of masks and the effects of the government’s emergency response.

On social media, she characterized the Dunleavy administration as being “wild” over “these experimental” vaccines. At a hearing in early February, Reinbold questioned the extent to which the administration had suspended regulations during the pandemic.

“It’s almost like martial law,” she said.

The governor said that while he has tried to ease rules on businesses such as suspending fees, he’s never imposed martial law or forced Alaskans to get vaccines. Reinbold has called the governor’s criticism of her baseless.

“Some call ‘misinformation’ information they do not agree with or do not want to hear,” Reinbold said by email.

The dustup prompted intervention by the Senate president, who said he expected his committees to provide a “balanced approach.”

In Idaho, Rep. Heather Scott opened the legislative session in January by declaring, “The pandemic is over.” She said Idaho’s 1,600-plus COVID-19 deaths at that time amounted to “nowhere close to a pandemic.”

The average number of daily COVID-19 cases is falling in Idaho, but the death toll has risen.

During a live Zoom forum with constituents in mid-February, Scott criticized the National Governors Association, which last year issued a statement with tips for fighting misinformation about the virus. She alleged that the group is run by “globalists” at the World Economic Forum and that “they are the ones that came out with COVID.” The term “globalists” is widely considered to be an anti-Semitic slur.

Scott didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking clarification on what she meant.

Several of those who are spreading bogus virus information in legislatures also have supported Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

In Virginia, Republican Del. Dave LaRock, who attended the Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, warned a state House Health committee in late January that COVID-19 vaccines couldn’t be trusted. He said they were especially risky for several communities, including the elderly and people of color.

Democratic Del. Cia Price, who is Black, called LaRock’s false claims “simply dangerous.”

“There is legitimate vaccine hesitancy in communities that the gentleman listed, but actual and factual information is key, not fanning the flames that are based on historic events,” she said.


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — By JULIE CARR SMYTH and BECKY BOHRER

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Twitter to let users charge followers to see premium posts

Associated Press

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Twitter to let users charge followers to see premium posts

Twitter is branching out from advertising to find more ways to make money — both for itself and for its most prolific users, whether those are businesses, celebrities or regular people.

In an investor presentation Thursday, the social media company announced a new feature called “Super Follows,” which will let users charge for extra, exclusive material not shown to their regular followers. This can include subscriber-only newsletters, videos, deals and discounts. Users would pay a monthly subscription fee to access the extra content.

Twitter users — and the company’s investors — have long been asking it to launch a subscription-based model. This as a growing number of internet creators and influencers use tools like Patreon, Substack and OnlyFans to make money from their online popularity.

The subscriptions will also allow Twitter to tap into a broader range of revenue sources in a world where online advertising is dominated by a Facebook-Google duopoly. Twitter did not detail what percentage of the revenue it would share with celebrities and others who sign up paying subscribers.

“Exploring audience funding opportunities like Super Follows will allow creators and publishers to be directly supported by their audience and will incentivize them to continue creating content that their audience loves,” the company said in a statement.

Super Follows is not available yet but Twitter says it will have “more to share” in the coming months. Another coming product, “Revue,” will let people publish paid or free newsletters to their audience. There’s also “Twitter Spaces,” a Clubhouse competitor that lets users participate in audio chats. It is currently in private beta testing, which means it’s not yet available to the general Twitter audience.

The San Francisco-based company also said its revenue goal for 2023 is more than $7.5 billion, more than double its 2020 revenue of $3.7 billion.


By BARBARA ORTUTAY

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Airline CEOs, Biden officials consider green-fuel breaks

Associated Press

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Airline CEOs, Biden officials consider green-fuel breaks

Chief executives of the nation’s largest passenger and cargo airlines met with key Biden administration officials Friday to talk about reducing emissions from airplanes and push incentives for lower-carbon aviation fuels.

The White House said the meeting with climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also touched on economic policy and curbing the spread of COVID-19 — travel has been a vector for the virus. But industry officials said emissions dominated the discussion.

United Airlines said CEO Scott Kirby asked administration officials to support incentives for sustainable aviation fuel and technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In December, United said it invested an undisclosed amount in a carbon-capture company partly owned by Occidental Petroleum.

A United Nations aviation group has concluded that biofuels will remain a tiny source of aviation fuel for several years. Some environmentalists would prefer the Biden administration to impose tougher emissions standards on aircraft rather than create breaks for biofuels.

“Biofuels are false solutions that don’t decarbonize air travel,” said Clare Lakewood, a climate-law official with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Real action on aircraft emissions requires phasing out dirty, aging aircraft, maximizing operational efficiencies and funding the rapid development of electrification.”

Airplanes account for a small portion of emissions that cause climate change — about 2% to 3% — but their share has been growing rapidly and is expected to roughly triple by mid-century with the global growth in travel.

The airline trade group says U.S. carriers have more than doubled the fuel efficiency of their fleets since 1978 and plan further reductions in carbon emissions. But the independent International Council on Clean Transportation says passenger traffic is growing nearly four times faster than fuel efficiency, leading to a 33% increase in emissions between 2013 and 2019.

The U.S. accounts for about 23% of aircraft carbon-dioxide emissions, followed by Europe at 19% and China at 13%, the transportation group’s researchers estimated.

The White House said McCarthy, Buttigieg and economic adviser Brian Deese were “grateful and optimistic” to hear the airline CEOs talk about current and future efforts to combat climate change.

Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, said the exchange was positive.

“Airlines are ready, willing and able partners, and we want to be part of the solution” to climate change, Calio said in a statement. “We stand ready to work in partnership with the Biden administration.”

By DAVID KOENIG.

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