The recent skirmish between Facebook and the government is hard to miss, even if you rely on Facebook for your news.
The News Media Bargaining Code, that has now been passed into law, forms a mandatory code of conduct for Google and Facebook. Under the code Google and Facebook are required to arrive at a publishing deal with news producers through formal negotiations, with all the usual whistles, bells and caveats attached.
What is news?
Facebook, of course, chose to bring out the big hammer and remove all news content from its feeds, and with it a bewildering range of other groups too – such as Indigenous health groups, emergency services and, most amusingly, its own Facebook page. It is too early to know whether this will have caused wide ranging doubt as to whether Facebook is the correct community engagement tool for such organisations with potential implications for Facebook’s societal relevance.
Presumably the reason that Facebook saw fit to block so many groups was to strengthen negotiation with the government by highlighting the range of content providers that could be considered as ‘news’ under the very broad definition of a news organisation in the code. The reality is that Facebook and Google have no natural inclination to financially support news content and do not want to negotiate with news media outlets and especially not the smaller ones.
You are the product
The operational goal of these platforms is clear. Every single piece of ascertainable data about you and your behaviours is captured and analysed in order to sell access to you in the form of targeted advertising. Alternatively put; your attention is the commodity that is being sold. It is believed that for every $100 spent on advertising online in Australia $53 of that goes to Google and $28 to Facebook, leaving just $19 for everyone else.
Google and Facebook are the best of breed at the game of knowing everything about you. One reason for them to love news content is that they are a goldmine of data – the conversations (and arguments) we have around stories; whether we slow our scrolling even just a little over a particular story; the raft of sociopolitical views held by our peers; and many, many more aspects of your preferences that they can sell.
As Spiderman fans will know: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Social media platforms certainly do have great power. We know that these platforms have played an influential role in Brexit, US elections, and politics in Myanmar to name just a few.
We may never fully understand the undue influence that has been exerted by malicious actors such as Cambridge Analytica, and we have to wonder if it is even in the platform’s interests to control this. After all, controversy stirs people up and that generates data that drives revenue.
Google and Facebook have claimed that it is unfair to make them pay for news content as they merely present links to news items and so, really, they are doing everyone a favour.
The problem with this kind of entitled attitude is that it takes zero account of the genuine consequences that these platforms have at a human level. Favours, after all, can be withdrawn.
In recent weeks we have had a brief glimpse of a world where the news is cancelled, but this is not the only example. In 2014, Spanish regulators required that Google pay publishers for news content. Google responded by shutting down Google News in Spain, which resulted in a 20 per cent reduction in news consumption and left a significant number of people with no news in their life at all.
In an age where tribalism is rampant we are especially vulnerable to alternative narratives and misinformation. Surely we’ve all seen the potential for vehement and even violent disagreement in the age of the social media platforms – be they the US election conversations or discussions about vaccinations. Regardless of the side on which you sit, it is necessarily true that diligent, fact-based reporting is an important input into public debate. The conclusion must be that anything that degrades the health, or diversity, of the news media environment brings with it the risk of social and democratic instability.
Anything for the small players?
Now that the News Media Bargaining Code is law we can expect to see the digital giants handing over millions of dollars to the largest news publishers such as News Corp and Nine, but will that increase the quality or quantity of news produced? There is nothing in the code to enforce this, so it is likely that their returns will increase with little or no discernible benefit to anyone without a share holding.
For local news it may be that Facebook and Google choose to block the little guys rather than go through the complexity, cost and risk of negotiating a deal. For local news, loss of access to the platform could pose an existential threat.
Australia’s stance might be part of a global shift in the relationship between tech giants and news publishers. Or we may have just taken a step closer to a news media environment where only big fish can survive.
♦ Ewan Willis has been a technologist ever since acquiring a ZX Spectrum 16 and learning to program. After completing a master of physics he began his working career as consulting analyst in telecommunications technology before transitioning to video game development and running software teams and developing the PlayStation 4 console. Ewan later transitioned into enterprise level Software As a Service during the rise of the DevOps movement before returning to Australia and taking on the role of Electron Wrangler at Echo Publications.