Digital platforms could be pushed off the catbird seat if regulatory moves afoot in Australia and France find resonance in other countries. For over a decade, they have leveraged news provided by the media to drive traffic to their search engines and social hubs, and simultaneously leveraged their dominance to avoid paying for the content. They have argued that they send back clicks to the media, which can be monetised, but the inequality is stark. Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg reports that almost half of the online ad spend in his country goes to Google, about a quarter to Facebook and the rest to all publishers combined. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) had sought a voluntary code to ensure more equity, but the conversation languished, and then the devastating effect of the coronavirus pandemic on ad revenues of the press lent a sense of urgency. Now, the ACCC will submit a draft mandatory code to legislators by July, forcing platforms to share ad revenue, pay for original content, and give publishers access to user data, ranking algorithms and policies for displaying news.
Earlier this month, France became the first nation to invoke an EU copyright reform requiring payment for news snippets reproduced from local publishers, but Google retaliated by threatening to withdraw news services from France. The competition watchdog, which believes that this constitutes misuse of market dominance, has forced it to negotiate with news providers while it investigates further. In 2014, Google had made good a similar threat against Spain, and does not offer its news product in Spain even now.
While the financial crisis in media has brought matters to a head, saving the press is not the principal concern, since the Australian government has already extended support. This is about market morality, and the objective is to erase an old inequality which has allowed platforms to transform themselves into trillion-dollar companies, literally at the expense of the media, whose content drives traffic to them. Generators of news and creators of opinion should be paid for their pains not because they have an absolute right to life, but because if they died, platforms would fall back on content generated on social media by individuals, interest groups and communities, and the problem of fake news would be amplified. While moves to make platforms pay for news are obviously about market morality, they are finally about the health of societies.
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