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Journalism fights back

Countries need News Media Bargaining Code that compels Big Tech platforms to pay for news

COMMENT | ANYA SCHIFFRIN | 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 AU$200 million ($133 million) annually from Big Tech firms.

With financing for local news plummeting, the number of journalism jobs declining, and innovative policies to sustain the production of high-quality news urgently needed, 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 traveled 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. In many countries, smaller and online-only outlets worry that the media code would primarily benefit the large traditional publishers. Capitalising on this skepticism 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. In a recent review of the new legislation, the Australian Treasury revealed that 30 funding agreements have been signed so far, with some covering dozens of publications.

While the media code is not perfect, it is a valuable tool that should be strengthened rather than attacked. One of the criticisms leveled 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 organizations 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 and that outlets that receive funding from major tech companies like Google and Facebook use the funds to improve news coverage. 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 alienated its supporters and triggered a backlash against the company. Confronted with the growing popularity of the Australian media code, Google has resorted to threats, indicating that it would stop carrying news content if required to pay for it and telling journalists that it would withdraw financial support from media outlets. 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.

It has been frustrating to witness the limited coverage of Google and Facebook’s hardball tactics. The secretive negotiations between the platforms and news organisations in South Africa, where desperate publishers are rushing to reach an agreement with Google because they cannot afford to wait for the legislative process to play itself out, illustrate the depth of the current crisis.

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.


Anya Schiffrin, a senior lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, is the author, most recently, of `Media Capture: How Money, Digital Platforms, and Governments Control the News’ (Columbia University Press 2021).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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