By Matt Hrkac
The monopolisation of big media corporations: big tech rightly says no way
On January 22, Google (through Alphabet Inc) made an extraordinary comment that if the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code Bill were to be legislated in its current form, that it would take the step of shutting down its search engine business in Australia. Facebook, on the other hand, is saying that it would rather ban links to Australian news content if this legislation goes through.
What is the "News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code Bill
On the surface, this legislation aims to ensure that local news media is able to remain a viable industry in the face of ever increasing digitisation of news content by "establishing a mandatory code of conduct to help support the sustainability of the Australian news media sector by addressing bargaining power imbalances between digital platforms and Australian news businesses". This is so that these content producers can continue producing "good quality" journalism. Reading between the lines, however, the effects of this legislation is a lot more sinister and weirdly enough, it's attracting support from some strange quarters.
In reality, it's about propping up and monopolising legacy media corporations - those being Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp and Nine Network/Fairfax Media, among others (while noting that the code explicitly excludes the ABC and SBS, as well as also excluding freelance journalists and small/independent media organisations). It's important to also look at this in context of legacy media being in decline - despite its best efforts to paywall its news content and capitalise on the digitisation of news media - as Australians seek alternative sources of information and news. Given how concentrated Australia's news media, which overwhelmingly platforms the views of the privileged and middle class, is - who can blame people for seeking alternatives?
The legislation seeks to force the likes of Google and Facebook to pay the likes of NewsCorp and other large media organisations an exorbitant amount of money, in order for the latter's content to be linked on the former's platforms. This is what I refer to when I say "monopolisation of legacy media corporations". If this legislation were to go through in its current form - NewsCorp and other large media corporations would be able to further assert their market dominance while pushing independent journalism down further than it already is. It's effectively gifting the likes of NewsCorp the keys to Google's search algorithm.
What's even worse is that there's no explicit requirement for the revenue that the big media companies would rake in as a result of this legislation to be directed towards producing journalistic content. If there's no requirement for the extra revenue to be directed towards journalism as opposed to buffering corporate bottom-lines, then doesn't that defeat the stated purpose of this legislation, which is to "help support the sustainability of the Australian news media sector"?
To explain how these business models work: Google Search, like other search engines, is an aggregator of web content, which is performed automatically by pieces of software called web crawlers (or search bots, search spiders, etc) which indexes this content - including links to online news articles - and displays it to web users who search for the relevant search terms. Google provides the bulk of its web services for free, and draws the majority of its revenue from advertising. Facebook content is entirely user generated, it also provides the bulk of its services for free and also draws a significant majority of its revenue from advertising. In both cases, links to news articles should be seen more as reference material (and paywalls prevent non-subscribers from being able to access much of this content anyway), rather than the republishing of said content.
Despite claims of corporate "bullying" - and it's weird to align with big businesses like this - Google and Facebook in standing their ground are not on the wrong side of this fight. While it's no question that big tech requires significantly more regulation, accountability and oversight than it currently has - a piece of legislation designed to monopolise large news media organisations at the expense of all else is not the way to stick it to big technology companies. If this legislation passes in its current form, it's not the big tech companies who will suffer - it'll be the millions of web users. It also threatens the very principle of having a fair, open and accessible internet.
About the author:
Matt Hrkac is a writer and photographer based in Geelong. He has particular interests in politics, elections, social movements and the trade union movement. If you like what you see here, please consider giving a small donation to help cover the expenses.