It might seem a little odd that with endless cuts to the ABC, federal police raids on journalists, apparently vindictive pursuits of whistleblowers, excruciatingly slow and outrageously expensive FOI requests, that this Australian government would ask the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to help shakedown Google and Facebook on behalf of “freedom of the press.”
Strange, until one recalls the nickname of News Corporation’s national flagship is “The Liberal Party Tribune.” Follow the money?
Whereupon on 20 April 2020, the Australian Government asked the ACCC to develop a mandatory code of conduct to address bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms, specifically Google and Facebook.
The ACCC released a code of conduct for social media platforms just over a month ago that has put the wind up them – were that possible – and consequently rather startled us regular searchers of Google, for example, upon seeing those little threatening messages from them.
Should such a code become law, the social media giants insist, they will deprive Australians not only of any news in their pages and search results, but, Facebook says, ban Australians from sharing news on Facebook and Instagram.
The kerfuffle is because the ACCC’s draft news media bargaining code would force them to pay for that news.
Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram. This is not our first choice – it is our last.
~ Will Easton, Facebook Australia
Mr Easton’s Facebook warning joined Google’s landing page nags that said Google Search and YouTube services would worsen and “may no longer be free to Australians.”
Google’s dire warnings on its search and YouTube pages has disappeared for now. Was it affecting revenue, perhaps?
Australia really has the eyes of the world on us when it comes to this proposed code of conduct. We could be the first country to truly support journalism by diverting the significant profits received by Facebook and Google using competition law.
~ Associate Professor Johan Lidbert, Monash
The draft code would allow news media companies to bargain with Google and Facebook over payment for including their news on those services.
It also has some ‘minimum standards’ that rankle the social giants, such as giving notice when search results are tweaked, recognising original news content, and spilling more beans on what they do with information about you.
The ACCC code is no less fair than a franchising code of conduct that Australian franchisees already abide by.
Shooting themselves in the foot?
As Rob Nicholls at UNSW suggests in The Conversation, if Facebook enacts its threat, with a huge amount of its visitors seeking news (between 39% and 49%):
…it will potentially lead to very uncompelling content on both Facebook and Instagram. Can you imagine Instagram or Facebook without the ABC or Australian news sources?
And as Professor Nicholls says, Facebook et al resisted early attempts by local media to bargain, and therefore “it’s Facebook’s failure to make an early offer” that brings us to this moment.
It is daily pointed out – obvious from ongoing sacking of experienced investigative journalists and waves of regional newspaper shutdowns – that journalism conducted in the public interest must be economically viable for democracy to stay healthy. The internet is relentlessly destroying print journalism – revenues in particular – as circulation crashes and advertising moves online.
And Google and Facebook swallow most of this revenue, while online publishers struggle to attract both advertisers – who now have their own retail web presence – and paying subscribers.
The ACCC code is an opportunity for Google, Facebook, and the other tech giants to meaningfully and sustainably contribute to the cost of producing public interest journalism,” said Professor Lidberg.
If the platforms are serious about being good corporate citizens, they should approach this process in good faith. It would be a good opportunity for the platforms to address the increasing backlash (techlash) they are experiencing from the public.”
Yesterday ACCC’s Chair Rod Sims piled on, stating that Facebook’s threat – to prevent any sharing of news on its services in Australia – is ill-timed and misconceived.
The draft media bargaining code, he said, aimed to ensure Australian news businesses (including independent, community, and regional) get a seat at the table for fair negotiations with Facebook and Google.
Facebook already pays some media for news content,” Mr Sims said.
The code simply aims to bring fairness and transparency to Facebook and Google’s relationships with Australian news media businesses.
We note that according to the University of Canberra’s 2020 Digital News Report, 39% of Australians use Facebook for general news, and 49% use Facebook for news about COVID-19.
As the ACCC and the Government work to finalise the draft legislation, we hope all parties will engage in constructive discussions.”
And the very last word would send a cold wind, a draught perhaps, through the air at Facebook Australia:
At the end of the day, if Facebook follows through on its threat, we’ll end up with a platform that is much less appealing. More than anything else, that’s likely to drive the decline of Facebook.
~ Prof. Rob Nicholls