In April 2020, the Australian government asked the Australian Consumer & Competition Commission to develop a mandatory News Media Bargaining Code of conduct to enable news publishers to negotiate at eye-level with Big Tech.
The Code, which took effect on 3 March 2021, aims to ensure that news publishers are fairly compensated for the use of their content by digital platforms such as Google and Meta (formerly Facebook). During the development of the Code, Google and Facebook went to great lengths to prevent it from becoming law, even blocking news content in the country to pressure the Australian government to abandon it.
Restoring the balance: Asking Big Tech to pay a fair contribution
The rational of the News Media Bargaining Code was to create a level playing field for news publishers negotiating fair compensation for the use of their content with Big Tech. As traditional revenue streams such as print advertising have declined, publishers have increasingly relied on digital platforms to distribute and monetize their content. These platforms, however, have used the significant imbalance of power in their favor to forego compensating publishers fairly for the use of their content.
The Code seeks to address this imbalance by requiring digital platforms to negotiate with news publishers in good faith. If an agreement cannot be reached, an independent arbitrator is appointed to determine a fair price for the use of the content. This ensures that news publishers are not left at the mercy of Big Tech, who have been too ready to refuse to pay their Fair Share.
Storm in a teacup: Overblown resistance to pay a fair contribution
Big Tech companies, Google and Facebook were quick to reject the proposed Code and tell the tale of how wrong it was to ask them to compensate news publishers’ fairly for their content. In arguments foreshadowing Big Tech’s current resistance to pay their Fair Share for services received from telecoms operators, Facebook at the time stressed that the Code “fundamentally misunderstands [their] relationship with publishers […]” and claimed that “the value exchange between Facebook and publishers runs in favour of the publishers.”
Ultimately, the company went as far as effectively blocking news content in Australia as well as content of the country’s health and emergency services, while misinformation, for example against Covid vaccinations, continued to reach Australian users. Meta have deployed the same strategy in Canada, where the government is seeking to pass a similar law to the Australia News Media Bargaining Code.
All is well that ends well
For all the Big Tech bickering, doomsday tales and pressure put on the Australian government, the News Media Bargaining Code has been a success.
One year on from it taking effect, the Australian government reviewed the Code, finding that “the Code has encouraged digital platforms to reach a substantial number of agreements with news business that would not have been made without [it].” 34 agreements had been negotiated at the time of the review, benefitting large and small news business both in metropolitan and regional areas. In none of those cases was it necessary to involve the independent arbitrators, as businesses found agreements on the level playing field created by legislation.
The Code has given news publishers the needed certainty to invest in their operations, to hire new staff and improve their offerings to consumers. Guardian Australia noted that “the financial security of these contracts gave management the confidence to bring forward investments.” Overall, as the report notes, “by the end of its first year of operation, the Code had brought Google and Meta to the negotiating table with news businesses for the first time over remuneration for content.”
In Canada, Big Tech has gone back to overblown resistance to paying their Fair Share to news publishers. In Europe they are mounting a front against paying fair compensation to telco operators for data traffic. We can only hope, for news publishers in Canada and for the future of Europe’s connectivity infrastructure that they don´t succeed.