In a welcome break from the stream of coronavirus news that has gripped us all this year, the media itself has become the focus of an emerging contest between Australian media outlets and online platforms of Facebook and Google.
Newscorp and Nine have lobbied the government to introduce legislation that would force Facebook and Google to pay Australian outlets for the news posted and shared on their platforms. This would apply to all Australian media outlets with at least $150,000 in revenue per year.
In response, Google ran a public awareness campaign, bombarding their users with warnings of their search results being compromised. Facebook simply threatened to disallow Australian media on their platform entirely, circumventing the need to pay.
While we are awaiting the next move from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and our government, it's worth examining what this situation means for Australians, and what we, as a nation, actually want to get out of this.
What's the actual problem?
First of all, do we even need to change this relationship in Australia? Or is this just one big corporation using the government to get its way over another?
Ad revenue has fallen drastically for Australian media outlets in recent years. The ACCC estimated that advertising revenue in Australia dropped from $3.7 billion in 2001 down to $225 million in 2016 (adjusted for inflation).
This issue isn't unique to Australia and other governments have tried to interfere in this market. In response to a similar regulatory change in Spain, Google took similar measures to pull back, resulting in many smaller outlets going out of business, and a drastic drop in overall news consumption nationwide. Google is set to pay news publishers in Brazil and Germany, too.
Even if we did succeed in shifting more revenue from these internet titans, Australian media ownership is dominated by just a few large companies, including Newscorp, another global corporation with a questionable record of its own. The decision to draft legislation that only protects news publishers with $150,000 in annual revenue deserves special scrutiny.
Is there a solution?
Secondly, if we did want Australia to have a fairer revenue distribution between online news platforms and content creators, is this actually how we want it to work?
It is tempting to look at pay-per-click style arrangements, which seem like a simple and effective method for platforms to pass on some of their revenue to the media entities that generate the most interest. However, it brings with it a risk of further incentivising clickbait.
Maybe this is an area that doesn't actually merit direct intervention by our government, and not for the reasons given.
Perhaps this is less about achieving a fairer outcome for Australian news media, and more about extorting money from a couple of big companies to bolster a couple of other big companies.
Corporations that stand to benefit the most from a policy should not be the drivers of said policy. If we were looking for a fair outcome for Australians and nurturing an environment for good journalism, we would be well-served by using a Science Party favourite, ask the right questions. And when making complex decisions about how we use technology in Australia, we should be establishing a body of independent experts who can appropriately analyse where we want to be, and chart a course for us to get there, through well-informed, and well-rationed information.
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