March 8, 2021

Australia’s battle with Facebook and Google that may shape the future of media


Australia is currently experiencing a tense struggle with Google and Facebook.

What happens when there is a collision between what a country wants and what the tech giants that operate on it? Australia is living these days a tense struggle with Google Y Facebook, after the approval of a bill that forces them to pay billions of dollars to the media for their content. A complex battle that can set a precedent for the future of the information.

After a year of tense negotiations, this Wednesday the Australian Parliament passed a reform that establishes that, in the event that both parties do not reach an agreement, a court will be the one who will decide the compensation for that news content. Big technology detests the intervention of an intermediary, because it hurts them.

Google threatened to leave the country, but ended up reaching an agreement this week with the media giants to pay to include their articles in the search engine’s news section. Facebook, however, chose to block, without prior notice, the publication and sharing of news in its platform. The decision drew criticism from politicians and activists around the world. Still, both have returned to the negotiating table.

Global impact

The struggle between Canberra and the technological giants are observed with attention from different countries of the world, who are also experiencing the impact that these platforms have caused in the media ecosystem. Canada has supported the measure, France has already followed the same path and the European Union is beginning to probe similar regulations. What happens in Australia is important because it may be the prelude to a global paradigm shift.

The debate is complex and tackles a longstanding problem. Google and Facebook have benefited from being able to add links to news of media, while they have used the loudspeaker of these platforms to get their information to more citizens. However, the growing power of Google and Facebook have turned them into a duopoly that absorbs the vast majority of the digital advertising, drying up the financing of the media – which have lost billions in advertisements – and accelerating the layoffs of journalists and the precariousness of the sector.

Open the algorithms

Australian law goes beyond a war for payment for media content. Thus, it requires Google and Facebook to open their algorithms to inform publishers, 28 days in advance, of changes in the dissemination of news. Keys in the operation of technology, the configuration of the algorithms determines what information is prioritized and recommended when doing a Google search or when opening the Facebook ‘timeline’.

This decision, which would be like undressing the biggest secret of these multinationals, supposes an unprecedented change that questions the relationship that has existed until now between the States and the so-called ‘Big tech‘.

And journalism?

With this struggle, Australia wants to force technology companies to reward the media, affected by the irruption of these platforms. But what about journalism? “There is no requirement that any subsidy given to publishers be spent on news gathering,” notes journalist Casey. Newton in their ‘Platformer’ newsletter.

Furthermore, Australian law excludes small media from receiving payment from those platforms. “The current proposal threatens to further entrench large traditional media companies and accidentally destroy media diversity,” a group of small websites denounced in September. When Google news stopped operating in Spain, news consumption fell by 20%, hitting small media, according to a 2017 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

And they are partly right. On Wednesday, Google reached an agreement to pay “significant amounts” to News Corp, the media empire of the ultra-conservative tycoon Rupert murdoch, which controls headlines such as ‘The Sun’, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ or ‘The Times’ and that the last quarter of 2020 obtained profits of 261 million dollars. “This agreement sets a terrible precedent and gives Google even more power over the news,” he noted. Jeff Jarvis, considered one of the greatest experts on the operation of the network.

Australia’s law marks the way into a new era of greater regulation of big tech. However, far from putting an end to the debate, it opens up new questions. What if in the process of combating the concentration of power of Google and Facebook, the dominance of the media giants that weighs on the journalism?

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