The dust seems to have settled for now on the standoff between Facebook and the Australian government. After an eight-day stand-off where Facebook blocked large number of Australian publishers, the government backed off with a promise to consider changes to the law and allow Facebook more time to negotiate with local media companies.
It’s a good time to consider the possible long-term impact of the Australian government’s media bargaining laws. If you’re unfamiliar with the issue, the Australian government passed a law that forces Facebook and Google to pay for ‘news’ content. The premise was that the tech giants were ‘stealing’ content’ from local media businesses and creating an imbalance which harmed quality journalism.
Google ran a campaign against the proposed law highlighting that they only provide links to news content and are in fact generating more users for local media by referring traffic to their sites. If media companies didn’t want their content to be visible on Google, it was pointed out that they could easily stop search engines from crawling their content.
While this is true in theory, in reality, this is hardly something media companies can afford to do. Google and Facebook and hugely important sources of content discovery and how the vast majority if users discover news.
While it’s technically true that search engines and social media only provide links to content, over time they’ve been working on retaining users within their own environment. Links on Facebook for example, open within their own browser. Google serves like ‘Shopping’ and ‘AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages)’ aim to keep user within the Google environment for a larger portion of the user journey.
Considered from this perspective, the Australian government’s view does have some merit. It can be argued that having news content enriches these platforms and creates and compelling reason for more frequent use. But connecting this thread of logic to the Australian laws is a real stretch.
While the tech platforms have certainly played a role in loss of advertising revenue, the reasons for the decline in Australian journalism go well beyond the role of tech. Australia’s media ownership is among the most concentrated in the world. If the intent is to improve the quality of journalism, then addressing this issue should be the most important concern. Government policy in this area has done the opposite, allowing large media conglomerates to emerge.
Part of the argument for the laws is how large and monopolistic the large tech companies have become. There’s no doubt that the large tech platforms need better regulation. But there are more important issues that need to be addressed first, like taxation, online harassment and the propagation of hate speech and fake news.
While news content plays an important role in society, it’s unclear why other types of content (e.g.: health information) are not considered important enough to warrant a consideration in the law. The law has no safeguards to ensure that revenue being generated by large media companies will actually be invested into journalism. Larger media companies are free to invest that revenue into executive bonuses for example.
The laws encourage non-transparent deals between large tech and media companies which sets a dangerous precedent for the open internet. If tech companies are forced to pay for links to news content, then they’re likely to be selective about who they choose to make deals with. They’re likely to choose larger media conglomerates over smaller media companies. This hurts smaller more innovative media businesses that are likely doing more to push quality journalism forward.
This also sets a dangerous precedent in countries where freedom of the press is already under threat. Authoritarian regimes can use these laws as an argument to block certain types of critical content by making it unfeasible for tech platforms to surface it.
While the stated intent of these laws may be good, they are unlikely have any impact on actually improving the quality of journalism. Infact it’s quite possible that the precent they’ve set, will have the opposite effect and harm press freedom and journalism in the long run.