The Australian government has been blindsided by Facebook suddenly blocking all news on the platform in Australia but says the “heavy-handed” move will not stop parliament from passing landmark laws to force tech giants to pay for journalism.

Australians woke up on Thursday to discover they couldn’t view or share news on the social network after Facebook blocked the content in an escalation of a row over whether it should have to pay media companies for displaying their content.

Facebook is opposed to the federal government’s news media code which has already passed the lower house of parliament and is expected to soon pass the upper house.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, took to Facebook on Thursday to argue the platform’s show of strength would “confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of BigTech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them”.

“Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today, cutting off essential information services on health and emergency services, were as arrogant as they were disappointing,” Morrison wrote on Facebook. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”

The federal communications minister, Paul Fletcher, warned that companies that operate in Australia “need to comply with the laws passed by the elected parliament of this nation”.

A string of ministers told parliament on Thursday that Facebook’s move was “an assault” on democracy and would damage the company’s reputation.

The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, condemned Facebook’s decision to block Australians’ access to government pages in the middle of a pandemic – including on bushfires, mental health, emergency services and even the Bureau of Meteorology – saying they were “completely unrelated” to the proposed news media bargaining code.

The Facebook ban came a day after the government celebrated the passage of its world-first news media code through the lower house and just hours after News Corp signed a global deal with Google to pay for news content in its publications in Australia, the UK and the US.

Google has made individual commercial deals with dozens of Australian publishers outside of the media code including Nine Entertainment and Seven West Media. They are reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars each.

Facebook had been relatively quiet until it astounded the government with the unprecedented blocking on Thursday.

The social media platform, used by 18 million Australians, prevented the sharing of news and wiped clean the pages of media companies, including the public broadcaster’s television, radio and non-news pages, and inadvertently wiped community, women’s health and domestic violence support pages in the process.

Frydenberg said the ban confirmed the “immense market power of these media digital giants”.

“These digital giants loom very, very large in our economy and on the digital landscape,” Frydenberg said. “The Morrison government remains absolutely committed to legislating and implementing the code.”

Facebook blamed the government’s definition of news content in the media bargaining code for the “inadvertent” blanket ban on government pages on Facebook – an interpretation the government rejects.

“Government pages should not be impacted by today’s announcement,” a Facebook spokesperson said. The company said it would reverse the ban on those pages.

“The actions we’re taking are focused on restricting publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content,” Facebook said. “As the law does not provide clear guidance on the definition of news content, we have taken a broad definition in order to respect the law as drafted.”

Frydenberg said he had a lengthy “constructive” talk to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg after the ban was imposed and said there were “some differing interpretations as to how the code would work”.

The treasurer signalled there may be room for negotiation and he would “clarify some the issues with Facebook” over the next few days.

The government had already made minor changes to the code in line with some of the complaints Google had about its original form.

“We want commercial agreements under the code, we want to implement and legislate the code, and we want the major players to stay here in Australia and to keep providing the services to Australians that Australians so enjoy,” Frydenberg said. “So we are going to work through those issues with Facebook.”

The News Corp Australasia executive chairman, Michael Miller, said Facebook’s “disappointing” move “clearly encourages fake news over reliable news and demonstrates the extraordinary market power Facebook holds”.

One of the news websites that gets a lot of traffic from Facebook, Daily Mail Australia, labelled it an inflammatory move.

“So much for Facebook’s commitment to free speech,” a Mail Online spokesperson said.

“We are astonished by this inflammatory move, which is a blatant and clumsy attempt to try and intimidate the Australian government into watering down the provisions of the ACCC code. We trust Canberra’s politicians stand firm and call Facebook’s bluff by passing the legislation unchanged and enforce it to the letter of the law.”

The managing director of the ABC, David Anderson, said ABC News was the number one digital news service and the nation’s most trusted news outlet. He encouraged Australians to access the apps and website outside of Facebook.

“Despite key issues such as the Covid pandemic having ongoing effects on all Australians, Facebook has today removed important and credible news and information sources from its Australian platform,” Anderson said.

The publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, Nine Entertainment, said Facebook’s “unfortunate” decision benefitted no one.

“Facebook will now be a platform for misinformation to rapidly spread without balance,” Nine said. “This action proves again their monopoly position and unreasonable behaviour.”

The removal of news will have a devastating impact on smaller publishers and youth news companies, such as Junkee Media, which told a parliamentary inquiry that most of Junkee’s traffic – 75% – comes from Facebook and Google. Seven West, which declined to comment, also relies on Facebook for a lot of its traffic.

Reset Australia, a global initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy, said Facebook’s decision to pull news from its Australian users reveals just how little the platform cares about stopping misinformation.

“Facebook blocking news in the middle of a pandemic, when accurate information is a key plank of the public health response, really tells you all you need know about how much Zuckerberg cares about Australian society and cohesion,” Reset’s managing director, Chris Cooper, said.

The director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, Peter Lewis, said the decision to prevent the sharing of public interest journalism would make it a weaker social network.

“The social network is destroying its social license to operate,” Lewis said. “Facebook’s actions mean the company’s failures in privacy, disinformation and data protection will require a bigger push for stronger government regulation.”

But former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said Thursday’s outcome “was a very foreseeable possible consequence” of the government’s strategy.

Turnbull told the ABC the Coalition was “essentially holding a gun to the head of private businesses”. “The government will get fantastic publicity in the media in Australia because every media outlet in Australia has a conflict of interest,” he said. “But Facebook’s concern, as they have said quite openly, is they are worried about setting a precedent.”

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