The stakes have been raised in the Australian government’s stoush with Google and Facebook. Last week, Facebook joined Google in expressing opposition to the proposed new laws, threatening to block news sharing from Australian Facebook users. But the ACCC seems more concerned with protecting the market power of Australia’s old news publishers, and is squandering the opportunity for some long-overdue regulation of big tech.
You might expect a competition and consumer commission to concern itself with the adverse impacts of the excessive market power of companies like Google and Facebook on commerce and consumers. Unfortunately, in its new News Media Bargaining Code, Australia’s ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) has gone into bat for Australia’s competition averse big media companies like News Corporation, themselves deserving regulatory scrutiny. The ACCC is botching an important opportunity to begin reigning in the dominance of big tech.
The result is a cumbersome code that is shaping up to be a massive misdirection of regulatory effort. Australians shouldn’t expect the new rules to produce a flourishing of great journalism. The regulator seems to have identified two targets – big tech, Google and Facebook – and the public broadcasters, SBS and the ABC – coincidentally, both arch enemies of the Murdoch Press. The code requires the two tech titans to negotiate with commercial news corporations to compensate them for the use of news on their platforms, and then excludes the ABC and SBS from taking a cut from the deal. The Murdochs hit their two favourite targets in a single ACCC code and the most valuable journalism on the internet in Australia, produced by the public broadcaster, the ABC, goes without compensation.
Google and Facebook say they don’t earn significant revenue from news. I believe them. That doesn’t mean that news is not important to them. Selling ads is not the core business of Google and Facebook. Accumulating and selling data about people is. News probably produces low advertising revenues for big tech, but it produces a rich trove of data that can be used for advertisers across the web.
Added to the other elements of big tech’s surveillance; tracking web browsing, tracking shopping, tracking location, tracking political preferences and more, and news content plays an important part in creating big tech’s unassailable product for advertisers. Data is what makes Google and Facebook such colossally successful businesses. And why conventional publishers can’t compete.
The accumulation and use of that data should be the focus of any regulation. Who owns it? How to value it? Is it handed over in a good faith and fair transaction? Is there sufficient disclosure of its likely uses? Is it desirable in a free and democratic society for such vast troves of data about the population, to reside on the servers of a few massive foreign companies?
Google and Facebook began their accumulation of data more than a decade ago with little public debate or regulatory interest. To this day, I’ve never heard an Australian politician say anything that might indicate more than a most rudimentary understanding of the functioning of big tech – which may explain the clumsiness of this code.
Australia’s ACCC should start again focusing on the core issues of big tech’s market power and data accumulation. A wholesale review and transformation of the operations of the big tech companies is urgent, not just for news publishers but for all publishers, creators, businesses, consumers and citizens of democratic societies. There are ways to help news publishers do their essential work, that would also contribute to a more healthy internet.
If you would like to further explore the issue of Google and Facebook and the urgent need for regulation, check out The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff. It’s a uniquely insightful read on the urgent threats posed by big tech.