The internet has a clear monopoly over news media and has increasingly done so for the last decade. Enormous internet conglomerates, think social media giants and search engine masters, have power over news media, as well as financial power over media companies. The power of platforms, such as Facebook and Google, is increasingly worrying given its potential impacts on domestic and international politics, its implications on democracy and the endemic misinformation spread through these mediums. This has pushed the Australian government into making the internet a more equal space for public journalism.
In early 2021, the Australian government tried to make a deal with two of the biggest media platforms in the world, Facebook and Google, that would see news and journalism companies, such as the ABC, Channel 7, and small regional organisations financially compensated for being on their platforms. As a result, Facebook would be forced to pay money for news articles to appear on user’s timelines. This is an effort to reset the business models of these companies. Over the last 10 years, Australian journalism has been hard hit by the fast migration to internet-based media as opposed to the traditional newspapers, where people would be obliged to pay money to consume news. Google had a similar predicament and was being pushed to pay sites to appear on its platform. The News Bargaining Code - which was hotly contested by these platforms, who for months threatened to pull out of the Australian market altogether - will be introduced into the Federal Parliament.
On Wednesday the 16th of February, Google announced it would move all news content to a new sister platform, Google Showcase, which would host news content in a compromised version of the original deal. Google Showcase, a new platform designed for this purpose, is supposedly going to be directly linked with the normal search bar, just redirecting you symbolically away from Google Search. It would also pay media companies, with many of the Australian media giants getting millions of dollars over the next few years. While we don’t know the exact numbers, Seven West Media will reportedly get $30 million a year, and Nine will be getting a similar paycheck from Google. While this compromise does mean Google doesn’t have to pay to have news content on the search page, as was originally intended, it does change the dynamics of the news and media in Australia.
We’ve all known for some time that Facebook is a strange subworld for news media, thanks to the countless stories of fake news directly impacting vulnerable citizens who are not taught how to discern between fake and authentic news coverage. The US elections were riddled with manipulative tactics on the platform, and global COVID-19 understanding was made vulnerable by misinformation on the platform. Facebook banned all news content from being shared on the site, without any warning. The cause of this was not for the intention of fixing its fake news problem, but to avoid paying for journalism. This ban included all media giants (ABC, news.com, etc), as well as student newspapers and magazines (including the Meridian Magazine) and originally also included satirical news (namely the Betoota Advocate which is now back up). The ban meant news cannot be accessed on the platform in Australia, including news from companies based elsewhere. However, some loopholes have been found, such as a link being shared that doesn’t automatically turn into an article preview. It is also worth noting, this ban does not cover Facebook-owned platforms like Instagram.
While this muscle-flexing action, which is thought to be a symbolic action from Facebook, a ‘look Australian journalism needs Facebook more than Facebook needs journalism’ is still a worrying insight into a potential future for journalism. The power of these internet companies is enormous, and this ban, just three days before Australia rolls out its COVID-19 vaccine program, sees enormous threats to news and information across Australia, with special consideration to already vulnerable populations such as the elderly.
However, after almost a week of Facebook flexing its muscles, highlighting its power over the Australian government, the social media platform backed down. The Australian government and Facebook came to an agreement; that if Facebook could prove it’s making genuine deals with media companies, the Federal government wouldn’t intervene. And with that, all seemed to go back to normal - a strange blip on the Facebook timeline that only emphasised the excessive power Facebook held
But what does this mean for Australia and for everyone else?
Countries across the world made comments in support of the Media Bargaining Code and its values, and the impact of international media companies having too much power over governments.
This fight against tech giants has been taken on by countless countries. The fear of the misplaced power of Facebook is a genuine concern for security and national sovereignty. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault suggested that Canada would be following the same path, and would force Facebook and other giants to pay for news, stating “Canada is at the forefront of this [media] battle ... we are really among the first group of countries around the world that are doing this.”
The UK has made similar remarks, with the UK culture secretary, Oliver Dowden denounced Facebook for ‘putting their bottom line above public interest,’. He then goes on to explain “Tech titans have become the gatekeepers of online knowledge and the custodians of virtual public squares, and the government won’t shy away from intervening to protect the interests of the public when it needs to.” A new threat to Facebook of countries one by one introducing similar laws to diversify the market and promote public journalism appears to be on the horizon.
For now, the power of governments versus the power of tech giants seems to sway in the favour of these international companies, however, this strength is being challenged as each country begins to draft legislation, in order to balance the power in their own favour. The new age of the internet may incorporate more regional regulations meaning international giants will have to increasingly tailor their rules to their regional markets. This is a strange idea as we continue to live in a seemingly borderless world. While Australia and Facebook may have been an early battle in an ongoing fight to make tech giants accountable, this fight will continue throughout the world and across the internet, as big governments look to limit big tech.