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Australia’s new media bargaining code: What’s really up down under

March 4, 2021 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN @jason_kint

“Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia.”

—Charles M. Schultz

For those focused on where the future of the internet media economy is headed, all eyes turned to Australia in recent weeks. And, despite a last-minute PR spin campaign filled with half-truths and outright deception by pundits around the world vying to influence the debate, the end result is a new law, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which foreshadows the future for Google and Facebook.

We’ve had enough hot takes. It’s time to kill off, once and for all, the disinformation, misinformation, and talking points of the infamous duopoly, which I’ll try to do here by busting 10 myths. (Happy to talk through any of these further. Just reach out: publicly or privately.)

Myth busting

1. The bargaining code resulted from an arbitrary process.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Australian government undertook a thorough, multi-year process to establish this new law. Importantly, its competition regulator (ACCC) spent nearly two years investigating the dominance of Google and Facebook. The result was a 600+ page report that clearly demonstrates the imbalanced bargaining power held by the duopoly. At the same time, the Australian government – with support from all political parties – formulated a public policy decision about how to better fund journalism. The only assumption made was that the press is critically important to democracy. This should not be a controversial assumption. 

2. The inventor of the web has called this a “link tax” that will break the internet.

Yes, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a letter rightly expressing his concern that if it was possible to require payment for links throughout the web, it could break the internet. In the letter, he often hedged and clearly wasn’t focused on the specifics of the law, which does not require payment for links. We’ve seen this “link tax” talking point high on Google’s list in the past. And it’s a galvanizing force for defenders of the open web – as it should be. The law does mention linking but only in the context of describing what a digital platform does by publishing, curating, and linking to the news. It’s narrowly focused on the two platforms and in no way does it suggest a platform should be required to compensate for its links to news outlets.

3. Facebook won key concessions at the final hour.

The concessions for Facebook were, in fact, relatively minor. When Facebook pulled news off Australian users’ feeds, their goal was to trigger global outrage, shake up the press cycles, and turn the globe against Australia. Then, by throwing its PR might behind some elegant spinning about a great compromise, Facebook saved face. That’s all they did.

The final concessions included the addition of a couple windows of time (measured in months) in which Facebook will lobby and protest about having to pay for news. The “concessions” also included two changes that clarify the mechanics of the code.

4. This law is a gift to Murdoch and hurts everyone else.

Yes, News Limited has a lot of influence in Australia as its leading news company. In fact, as the ACCC Chairman noted, 80-90% of the journalists in Australia work for one of three companies (News, Nine, ABC). However, the idea that Google or Facebook would negotiate with these three companies and hang the other 10% of the market out to dry seems very unlikely considering the modest amount of additional funds it will take to round out the rest of the industry.

Having spent a significant amount of time on Australia’s 600+ page report, I would suggest that the law is much more clearly in the camp of increasing bargaining power for all journalism. It’s hard to argue that any news publisher with more than $150k in revenue per year isn’t better off with this law in place. Moreover, the law also allows for publishers to collectively bargain if they prefer. That does seem likely if they’re not getting what they need from Facebook and Google.

5. News Corp’s global deal with Google will result in settlements of antitrust lawsuits.

This anti-antitrust argument is the silliest thing I’ve heard. There is no greater fallacy in digital media right now than attributing the global antitrust scrutiny on Google and Facebook to one or even just a few parties. The antitrust lawsuits currently filed have the weight of the U.S. government, in 49 out of 50 states, and both parties in Congress.

The cases are robust, particularly the Texas-led advertising tech case against Google (which mirrors some of the work of the ACCC), Congress. Another is from the CMA, which is the UK’s comparable regulator. It also alleges a Section 1 charge of bid rigging between Facebook and Google. No market regulator walks away from these cases based on the whims of one complainant. The work in Australia has only added weight to these cases.

6. Publishers in Europe should be celebrating.

Globally, there is a lot of positive reaction to the work done in Australia. However, it’s also notable that the European market has been working for even longer on better funding professional content. In successfully passing an updated copyright directive, they’ve taken an approach that establishes additional rights for publishers through a publisher’s “neighboring right.”

Importantly, the European approach is not restricted to just news. It covers all content including snippets offered on Facebook and Google. France was first to bake this new right into law. Google responded by trying to avoid paying for anything that they’ve historically taken for free.

They’ve even invented a new product offering, Google News Showcase, to bury their payments and bundle in all rights needed. This minimizes any increased bargaining power for publishers, which has caused even more scrutiny. This opaque bundling of payment for rights by Google and Facebook keeps popping up wherever they face regulatory threats. If payment for snippets isn’t clearly delineated, and the financial terms aren’t transformative, the EU is likely to view Australia’s new law as a missed opportunity.  

7. Government will set an arbitrary price for platforms to pay for news content.

The reality is that Australia has come up with a solution that uses market forces by requiring negotiated deals with publishers ahead of a mandatory bargaining code or an arbitration process. It uses a clever “final offer” process (also known as “baseball arbitration”) to finalize deal terms. In both cases, the government recognizes its weaknesses in over regulating a fast-growing digital marketplace. Instead, it leverages its antitrust enforcement to create a carrot and then a stick to get companies benefiting from a gross imbalance in bargaining power to the table to properly and quickly negotiate.

8. A straight platform tax would be a better solution.

The simple problem with a straight tax is all content would need to be “treated equally.” A click on Breitbart would have the same value as a click on The Wall Street Journal. The government would then divvy up a pot of money between everyone. This creates all sorts of uncomfortable government leverage over news. And one can only imagine how they would choose to split the loot. Think about the market incentives if they divided it up based on monthly uniques or page views. Better to push negotiations back into the market where intangibles such as brand, heritage, trust, consumer perception, and scoops have significant value.

9.This is unique to Australia and won’t translate to other countries.

Every lawmaker in Canada, Europe, the U.K., and U.S. who is focused on these issues will draft off Australia. Arguably, this was the biggest concern for Google and Facebook. They hoped to limit discussion to an island on the other side of the world. Our global market no longer works this way. Everyone learns from each other. Despite Facebook and Google’s ability to leverage their global dominance to protect their fortresses through trade deals, lobbying, and ducking lawmakers, the whole world is catching up to them.

Also, there are major allies in these fights to support the free and plural press. Microsoft, one of the few companies larger than Google or Facebook, has aligned with publishers on the new policies in Australia and Europe. (Forgive me, as Microsoft’s support evokes the classic “That’s not a knife” scene in Crocodile Dundee.)

10. Facebook and Google have pledged $1 billion each to news publishers so we should be happy.

Together, these two companies will easily surpass $250 Billion in global advertising revenues in 2021 without even participating in China. As of now, they’ve pledged $1 billion each towards journalism over three years. Thus, Google and Facebook are pledging barely 0.2% of their global advertising revenues towards journalism. Facebook’s protesting of payments was evidence in itself for Representative Cicilline to state that the company “is no longer compatible with democracy.” (And I tip my hat to the publisher that flatly stated that Facebook’s offer was not enough.)

These are two globally-scrutinized companies which pride themselves on moonshots. Yet they have failed to properly address how their algorithms help spread misinformation, disinformation. This has led to genocide in Myanmar, an insurrection on our Capitol, and health misinformation causing untold illness and death worldwide … to name just a few “unintended consequences.”

The future is now

The simple fact is that Facebook prefers to pay into journalism no more than it does for fake news from Macedonia, while continuing to grow its nearly $100 billion per year business of surveilling and microtargeting citizens with ads against the cheapest engagement available. They’ve devalued context. They’ve devalued facts. And they’ve devalued journalism for profits. In Australia, we see democracy fighting back.

Australia’s law has been endorsed by all major political parties in a representative democracy as a means to better fund journalism. Importantly, though this was rarely discussed, the code has a one-year review period to see how it’s working. If you listened too closely to American pundits the last few weeks, you would have thought this was the end of the open Internet – hypocrisy considering the closed platforms of those who shaped it.

The law prevailed. The world didn’t end.  In fact, it’s already tomorrow in Australia. They are ahead on this one, and there is a lot we can learn from it.