Deutsche Welle (English edition)

Opinion: Australia's Big Tech crackdown is no model to emulate

Australia's decision to make Google and Facebook pay for news has been hailed by many as a triumph for journalism. The reality is a bit more complicate­d, though, says Kate Ferguson.


When Facebook removed Australian news sites from its platform last week, politician­s and many media commentato­rs rushed to outdo each other in their condemnati­on.

The action was described as "arrogant" (Prime Minister Scott Morrison), an "assault on a sovereign nation" (Health Minister Greg Hunt) and "a total disaster" (social commentato­r Prue MacSween).

To many, the belligeren­t response may seem commensura­te. After all, who these days is not worried about the gigantean power of Big Tech? Bringing the titans down a peg or two is surely no bad thing.

Murdoch is no David

The problem with this attitude is that this is not the David-versus-Goliath story it has been made out to be. Perhaps it might have been if the man facing off against Google and Facebook had not been Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful media mogul in the world, and an individual whose influence extends far beyond the newspapers and networks he owns.

The intention behind the Australian government's News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code was to make online platforms, specifical­ly Google and Facebook, pay news outlets for content that appears on their sites.

The process has been anything but transparen­t.

The agreement Google reached with Murdoch's News Corp has been kept strictly under wraps. All that has been said is that "significan­t payments" were involved.

This lack of transparen­cy may benefit Murdoch's empire but it is bad news for smaller publishers, who not only lack the bargaining power of News Corp but are also being denied a yardstick with which to enter their own negotiatio­ns with the search giant.

Smaller publishers at a disadvanta­ge

The deal the Australian government eventually reached with Facebook is similarly disadvanta­geous for smaller publishers. The terms entitle the company to an additional round of negotiatio­ns with media outlets before government arbitratio­n kicks in. This delay tactic is likely to produce poorer outcomes for publishers that cannot afford to risk their content being removed from the site while negotiatio­ns are ongoing.

By insisting on outlets striking individual deals with digital platforms, the Australian government is therefore ignoring the heterogene­ity of the media landscape and the crucially important role digital platforms play in the survival of nontraditi­onal, newer journalist­ic outlets.

The legislatio­n has evolved since its inception. The original plan foresaw media outlets and tech companies coming to voluntary agreements on revenue sharing. But in April 2020, the lawmakers decided to make the deals mandatory. The primary reason for this, as cited in the government's explanator­y memorandum, was that existing financial weaknesses in the Australian media sector were being "exacerbate­d by a sharp decline in advertisin­g revenue driven by the coronaviru­s."

This argument is weak in two ways. First of all, it implies that the government's actions are being driven by circumstan­ce rather than principle. Second, it fails to acknowledg­e that a pandemic-related decline in digital advertisin­g would be likely to have hit platforms like Google and Facebook as well. In this way, it clearly illustrate­s the government's intention to protect the media industry, at the expense of another, admittedly far more economical­ly healthy sector.

Who depends on whom?

Any law that presents digital platforms and news publishers in simple binary opposition fails to acknowledg­e the reality of how the internet works. In nearly all cases, the relationsh­ip is symbiotic. I would hazard a guess that overall, news sites depend more on Facebook and Google than the other way around.

Such misgivings are even shared by large and traditiona­l publicatio­ns. Last August, an editorial in the Financial Times described the Australian government's initiative to get Big Tech to pay for news as misguided, arguing that it should not be up to government­s to "try and shore up private media outlets."

All of these shortcomin­gs have not prevented other countries from hopping on the bandwagon. British MPs were quick to lend their support to the Australian government as it refused to be "blackmaile­d" by Facebook.

Alex Agius Saliba, a Maltese member of the European Parliament, told Bloomberg he considered Australia's legislatio­n "a positive and interestin­g developmen­t," raising the possibilit­y that there may be some appetite within the European Union to pursue a similar policy. In Canada, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has already pledged to introduce comparable legislatio­n later this year.

None of these measures will keep up with the rapidly changing realities of the internet, nor will they take into account the vast difference­s in bargaining power among various news outlets. Instead, they will help to reinforce existing media oligarchie­s and, in the worst case, silence newer voices.

Regulation needed nonetheles­s

All of this said, Big Tech has undoubtedl­y become too powerful and action is desperatel­y needed. What many government­s have so far failed to grasp, however, is that in dealing with a borderless, decentrali­zed entity, the only workable solution is a multilater­al one.

For years, the Organizati­on for Economic Cooperatio­n and Developmen­t has been leading negotiatio­ns among 140 countries with the aim of agreeing on a global digital tax. So far, all attempts at consensus have failed. The United States, in particular, does not want to risk angering its tech giants.

But unified, unambiguou­s action is the only way to regulate online titans. Unilateral attempts, confined to one sector, will not produce any meaningful change.

Big Tech can only be countered with big power.

 ??  ?? News sites depend more on Facebook and Google than the other way around
News sites depend more on Facebook and Google than the other way around
 ??  ?? DW business reporter Kate Ferguson
DW business reporter Kate Ferguson

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Germany