Australia Reminds Large Tech It Is Not the Authorities

Facebook and Google have conveniently amassed market power despite calls for regulation and increased public scrutiny. Although criticism of the monopolizing influence of both platforms has not been uncommon, the staged coup at the Capitol was a turning point at which the public and the federal government stared at Big Tech. Settlement of the disastrous capabilities of these platforms, if left unchecked, quickly followed. The hasty shutdown of former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Twitter accounts suggests that both companies have acknowledged that their services were somehow, if not overwhelming, implicated in the January 6 violence. Unimpressed critics, however, argued that these efforts came only after – the factual actions that made little promise that anything would change.

Now the two companies face a new challenge from Australian lawmakers and publishers that will reorient the conversation about competing corporate and government interests in regulating big tech. The months of tension arose from a bill by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission that would require Facebook and Google news organizations to pay for original content displayed on their platforms. The bill recently passed by Parliament answers growing complaints from news companies that they are not being adequately compensated for their content and the resulting advertising revenue that both big tech and the social media industry enjoy.

The decision heralds the dawn of a revitalized journalism industry. Big tech and social media have absorbed much of the spotlight that used to be one-sided on the news industry. Candy-colored apps dominate over physical newspapers, causing several financial setbacks for even America’s greatest publications. More worryingly, despite their awareness of misinformation, approximately 53% of adults in the US get their news “often” or “sometimes” through social media. In a status quo in which journalism is increasingly digitized and readers rely heavily on what the internet has to offer, it has become a Herculean task for newsrooms to stay alive financially. Ben Mathis-Lilley, a senior writer at Slate, argued that “so much of that advertising spend is being used up by Facebook and Google, and what is left is increasingly going to Amazon.”

Although the passage of the bill – renamed the mandatory code of bargaining for news media and digital platforms – was achieved through a compromise between Australian lawmakers, Google and Facebook, the first responses from the two companies were markedly different. Facebook had a significantly larger role in the compromise. Despite Google’s initial setback, the company soon agreed to abide by Parliament’s terms, while Facebook responded immediately to blocking news in Australia for five days, sparking heavy criticism both domestically and abroad.

Nancy Scola, a senior technology reporter for Politico Pro, argued that Facebook’s refusal to comply justified governments and news outlets to push their regulatory agendas tougher than ever. She described the company’s actions as “instant fodder for those in the US who say Facebook is too big, too powerful and almost ungovernable”. It was precisely these concerns that led to antitrust proceedings against the company at the end of last year.

Following the bill’s original proposal, Google also threatened to hypothetically suspend its services. However, the cooperative actions in real time were in contrast to the social networks. Microsoft was even more reassuring than Google. Brad Smith, the company’s president, even wrote a blog post officially endorsing Australia’s proposal, which highlights the ability of technology to be one of society’s most powerful double-edged swords.

Ongoing global agitation for increased regulation and accountability suggests that current government inaction is being disrupted over the growing sociopolitical influence of big tech. If anything, overseas countries have shown stronger technical regulation leadership than their American counterparts, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison leading the global indictment. Morrison even used his personal Facebook account to express his dislike of the company’s reaction to the proposed law. He wrote: “Facebook’s actions to unfriend Australia today and cut off vital health and rescue information services have been as arrogant as they are disappointing. “Morrison also wrote that he was” in regular contact with leaders of other nations on these matters, “suggesting a newfound, globalized effort to successfully regulate big tech.

The initially different responses from Facebook and Google mark a strange difference in a long history of parallels. Although both companies stood relatively steadfast in their own defense, the fork meant that tension between Big Tech and the government had reached a boiling point. Now digital giants have no choice but to partner with government agencies, although they can still have a significant impact on the bottom line. This can be seen in the fact that following Facebook’s initial refusal to abide by the Australian government’s rules, Facebook later negotiated with the law to make several significant undercut – which eventually resulted in a compromise with lawmakers.

Such developments could anticipate a reorientation of the power dynamic between popular digital platforms and news organizations, allowing publications to receive fair compensation for their content, rather than allowing big tech and social media to take advantage of it. As AP News’s Joe McDonald argued, recent events suggest that the financial balance between billions of dollars worth of internet companies and news organizations may shift.

A clear winner of the government tech confrontation is media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which recently confirmed that it will be offering its news content in exchange for “substantial payments.” Robert Thompson, CEO of News Corporation, also expressed his approval of Google’s compliance, emphasizing that “terms and conditions” would change “not just for News Corp, but for every publisher.” However, despite Thompson’s alleged optimism for the justice of such developments, it goes without saying that the News Corporation, which owns both the Wall Street Journal and the Times, is far from a reflection of many of the smaller, less powerful publications that are suffering from the brunt a rapidly changing news consumer base.

To that end, it is important to recognize the persistent ambiguity in the actions of Google and Facebook. Even if the Google deal puts large sums of money in the hands of news organizations, it remains unclear exactly who would benefit from such a transaction. After all, most major news organizations are made up of complex hierarchies of journalists and executives. Independent Australian Senator Rex Patrick described the ramifications of the law as a way for the “big players” to “negotiate successfully with Facebook and Google”, resulting in “all the little players” [missing] out.”

Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance president Marcus Storm also underscored the need to “press for transparency” to determine exactly how funds were being distributed, claiming that “all funds from these deals are in the newsroom and don’t have to end up in the boardroom. “Such realities are a stark reminder that while Australian law is a crucial legislative step towards international technological accountability, it is harder to obtain adequate compensation for various news platforms than high-ranking executives would like to admit.

Image Credit: Photo by Morning Brew is licensed for use under Unsplash.

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