Press fights back Big Tech disruption

Press fights back Big Tech disruption

Two years ago, the Australian parliament passed the News Media Bargaining Code, which forced Meta (Facebook) and Alphabet (Google) to compensate media outlets for news content shared on their platforms. The law has been a remarkable success, with Australian media outlets now receiving more than A$200 million (about 6.9 billion baht) annually from Big Tech firms.

With financing for local news plummeting, the Australian media code has attracted significant attention. Google and Facebook have siphoned vast amounts of advertising revenues from legacy media outlets, and lawmakers around the world increasingly recognise that the major tech platforms have a responsibility to support public-interest journalism.

With little fanfare, other countries -- including Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- have initiated their own versions of the Australian legislation. As Pierrick Judeaux, director of portfolio for the new International Fund for Public Interest Media, recently observed, the media code has become part of Australia's "soft power". Over the past two years, Australian officials have travelled the world to promote it, cautioning their peers that Google and Facebook will lobby hard, spend heavily, and play dirty to prevent such bills from spreading.

Google, in particular, has ramped up its efforts to block such laws. Capitalising on this scepticism and seeking to create divisions, Google has secured private deals with a select group of Canadian publishers and is poised to begin formal negotiations with publishers in South Africa in the coming weeks. To receive financial support from the company, publishers must promise to refrain from seeking additional compensation in the event that new laws are enacted.

But Google has gone further, actively promoting the narrative that only major outlets benefit from the Australian media code. This claim is bogus: both large Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets and small media organisations in Australia have profited from the law. Country Press Australia, an industry association representing more than 100 local and regional news outlets, and the Minderoo Foundation have collaborated with small outlets to facilitate collective bargaining.

While the media code is not perfect, it is a valuable tool that should be strengthened rather than attacked. One of the criticisms levelled at the Australian law is that tech companies' payments to media outlets are kept secret. Canada's version of the code, if enacted, would improve transparency by requiring news organszations to disclose this information to regulators (but not to the general public). The Canadian bill also establishes eligibility criteria, requiring outlets to meet certain editorial standards and employ a minimum of two full-time staff members. Moreover, qualified outlets would have to submit annual reports to the regulating body.

Future iterations of the media code should include provisions mandating that deals between media organisations and tech companies be made public. Information about how digital platforms calculate the value of the news they disseminate and how they determine their payment schedule also should be publicly available. This level of transparency is crucial to ensure that news publishers are treated fairly.

Moreover, smaller outlets must be included in these codes, as media advocacy organisations such as the UK's Public Interest News Foundation, the South African National Editors' Forum, and Brazil's Association of Digital Journalism have emphasised. Governments, for their part, must refrain from consolidating the codes into omnibus bills that impose limitations on freedom of expression and enable the state to censor news content.

Google's tactics, as Brazilian journalist Natalia Viana recently noted, have triggered a backlash against the company. Brazilian authorities are currently investigating the company for potential "abusive practices" related to its lobbying efforts against Brazil's version of the bill. As recently as early May, just before the planned vote, Google changed its search results so that people entering queries got results maintaining that the proposed law would ruin the internet.

Financing quality journalism requires a collective effort, and it is crucial that the Big Tech platforms do their part. Given that Google and Facebook have resisted copyright payments, sought to avoid paying taxes, appealed fines, and lobbied vigorously to influence lawmakers and journalists, it is unclear whether they would be willing to accept any funding scheme. But after years of reaping massive profits from disseminating quality journalism produced by others, it is high time that they stop stalling and pay up. ©2023 Project Syndicate

Anya Schiffrin is a senior lecturer at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

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