by Benedetta Brevini
The day after Facebook, the Digital Lord, banned Australian news from its platform, the world is still watching. Of course, it’s watching. After two decades of absence of regulation, the Digital Lords of the Western world such as Google and Facebook are finally under pressure. The fight did not start in Australia and it is already global: from the United States to France, Spain, to Germany and Canada, the tech giants are being accused of being too big, too powerful, too unaccountable to the public. So, it comes as no surprise that the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, less than 24 hours since the ban took effect, reached out for the support of world leaders to a common cause: curbing the Digital Lords. He called them all: from India, to Canada to France.
There are a few political reasons for this call for international action.
Firstly, every issue concerning the governance of the Digital Lords of the West would really need a global action. Their reach is global and their ruthless profit-driven data collection is also global. So the Australian case could provide a fantastic opportunity to finally address their uncontested monopoly of the digital sphere in the West.
Remember the US antitrust cases against Silicon Valley giants? One of the proposals, supported by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, was to break up the giants.
What a fantastic opportunity to try to do so by separating Facebook “the Social Network”, from “Facebook the News-sharing Platform”? This could be the first step if the aim was to finally fragment their unchallenged control of the internet. Moreover, again in the US, the News Media Alliance, a lobbying group that represents 2,000 publishers, is arguing strenuously for a new US framework to allow publishers to collectively negotiate with the Digital Lords.
Beyond the US, there is certainly an appetite for reform in the European Union, the most fearless actor against the monopoly of the Digital Lords. For example, France ruled last September that Google needed to pay publishers to display snippets of news content, being the first to implement an EU directive of March 2019 that changed copyright reform to help sustain the press. Similarly, a law is under discussion in Canada to develop a framework to allow media organisations to negotiate with the Digital Lords to gain financial support for their content.
But the Australian prime minister rushed to contact foreign leaders for another reason: this was a great chance for Australia to shine, to become the “leader” of a global fight against the giant. It could also be a way for Australia to regain the esteem of world leaders, after being widely criticised for its climate change policy.
The Climate Action Network’s 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia the worst in the world on climate change policy, out of 57 countries. So, the call to arms is its best chance to regain the world’s trust. There is another important factor to consider, both local and global. We know very well that one of the biggest winners in the bargaining code battle is Rupert Murdoch, who signed with Google one of the greatest deals in the history of publishing. Under the terms of the deal, News Corp titles such the New York Post in the US, The Times, Sunday Times, and The Sun in Britain will make some content available on Google News.
And on Friday, while the attention of the world was focused on Facebook, the Australian parliament was starting to hear the most important “Inquiry on Media Diversity” against the Murdoch monopoly in the history of the country. However, the world did not react to that, despite the Murdoch empire being another truly global institution at the centre of truly global scandals – think Fox News in the US and the Brexit debacle in Britain.
It is true that the power of the Digital Lords is too extreme, too global and that it needs to be curbed. But so too is the power of a giant media company that is strangling the Australian public sphere, making it impossible for local news to flourish and smaller publishers to thrive.
The Australian bargaining code does very little to address the issue of media concentration in Australia, because the new economic resources taken by the Lords will go mostly to the biggest media institutions.
So, you might wonder, what happens next?
Well, Facebook could decide to find a way to negotiate, and use the ban as a strategy to get a better deal with publishers, just like Google did, when it threatened to leave Australia for good.
Will the ban have a domino effect on other countries? Certainly not, we can just look at Facebook’s revenues to see why it is acting with such arrogance in Australia, a small country by population size. In 2019, Facebook made US$0.7 billion in 2019 in online advertising in Australia. In the US, in 2020, it made more than US$86 billion. The numbers alone tell us that Facebook will be more likely to accept deals with publishers if countries around the world join the battle.
Private deals between big media conglomerates and Digital Lords are never really a victory for the public who deserve public interest news. This is not what a media policy in the public interest should look like and I hope we still have time to act to reverse the global trend of privatisation of public policy.
Benedetta Brevini is a journalist, media activist and associate professor of political economy of communication at the University of Sydney. She will be speaking at the Media Democracy Festival in the panel on ‘Blowing the whistle on media coverage of Julian Assange’, 8pm 17 March.
Originally published in the South China Morning Post and reposted with kind permission of the author. Photo: World Economic Forum.