The Southland Times
Australia’s media laws not so crazy
Any law that suggests one website has to pay another website for hyperlinking is totally bonkers — but we need it, argues David Court.
Good things happen for bad reasons all the time. Australia’s news media bargaining code is one of those things. Any law that suggests one website has to pay another website for hyperlinking is totally bonkers and goes against pretty much everything that makes the open internet great. Which is obviously bad. And for that reason, I get why Facebook didn’t originally play ball, because what the code originally proposed was a bit on the mental side of things.
However, the fact that Facebook went back to the Australian Government – after pulling all of its Australianbased news content in a huff
– and managed to reach an agreement within a week reveals a lot about how good Mark Zuckerberg knows he has it.
Remember, Facebook doesn’t generate any news content itself. Facebook, among other things, is just a glorified news aggregator that generates revenue by selling adverts next to content that another party has created.
Imagine a mischievous paperboy wrapping a morning paper in several layers of advertising or junk mail before he/she posts it through your letterbox, and you get an idea of how the Facebook/news publisher relationship is currently functioning.
Now picture a scenario where advertisers have figured out they only need to pay the paperboy to reach their desired audience. And because the paperboy doesn’t have to pay the salaries of journalists, he/she is able to offer advertising at a cheaper rate.
That’s where the industry is today. Facebook (the digital paperboy) argues that it provides a service that adds value to news publishers and without it, people wouldn’t get their news.
And it’s true. Facebook does drive a lot of traffic to news sites. Reports this week suggest Australian publishers suffered a 20 per cent drop in traffic when Facebook removed all its links.
But that’s only half the story. A seismic shift like this (last week) was always going to hurt Australian publishers hard in the short term. But make no mistake, people will adapt. Those who used to get their ‘‘news from Facebook’’ will find a new way to consume news.
And it had already started to happen, as news sites topped app store download charts in Australia last week for the first time in forever.
It’s also not the first time publishers have suffered big drops of traffic from Facebook.
In June 2016, the social network announced it would be tweaking its algorithm to downrank news and display content from friends and family more prominently instead.
Cue massive drops in traffic for publishers. Also cue more redundancies for journalists.
Fortunately, the code addresses this problem too. Sort of. It states that Facebook and Google need to give 30 days warning about any upcoming algorithm changes that will affect news publishers’ businesses. Facebook’s relationship with news has seemingly brought nothing but bad PR to the brand. We all know how badly it handled fake news (also in 2016).
So if we’re to believe Facebook when it says news only accounts for a single-digit percentage of its business, we also have to wonder why the network was so quick to sit down with the Australian Government and thrash out a deal that will see them paying tens of millions of dollars (Australian) a year to media companies.
It’s incredible in the immediate form, as this is a big win for Australian news companies which now have a huge new revenue stream. But it’s more incredible as an international precedent.
The whole world has been watching this battle play out. And what it has seen should be very encouraging for governments around the world, including ours, which have often struggled to get big tech to pay taxes that fairly reflect their profits.
Australia’s wild-eyed news media bargaining code was laughed at and pooh-poohed by analysts the world over. And probably rightly so, too. The idea that a company would have to pay for a hyperlink, as I said before, really is crazy.
But those analysts missed the point. The time for a pragmatic and softly-softly approach has been and gone. The time for that was a decade ago.
Here in New Zealand, a $55m rescue package for news media and publicinterest journalism has just been approved by Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi – paid for by taxpayers, by the way. That’s on top of the $42m a year taxpayers reportedly pay to RNZ, too.
I hope our Government goes as mad dog on big tech as the Australians just did. The sooner, the better.