May 8, 2021


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What we can learn from the Facebook-Australia debacle

2 min read

Democracies around the world are all mired in one crisis or another, which is why measures of their health is moving in the wrong direction. Many see the decline of the information industry as a contributing factor. No wonder, then, that the question of how to pay for journalism is an urgent one and that some governments are pursuing their ambitious plans. Big ideas for putting billions of dollars back into newsrooms are rare, but it’s time to bet on more than one.

One such idea grabbed the world’s attention this week: an Australian law that would force search and social media platforms to pay news agencies to link to their content. Google has decided to comply with the law and is making deals with big companies like News Corp, Nine and Seven West Media. But Facebook went the other way: Rather than paying for the news to appear on its platform, the social media giant has blocked Australian users from fully accessing and sharing the news.

The reactions were quick. Some commentators have rushed to Facebook’s actions as proof of its monopoly intent and lack of concern for civic discourse. Others blame the Australian government for bowing to the protectionist interests of media buddies like Rupert Murdoch, and putting tech companies in an absurd position.

What else can be done to put billions of dollars back into journalism?

Australia’s approach is currently under review by lawmakers and regulators in several other governments. Reuters reports that Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Canada would model its own legislation on Australian law. There are also some similarities in a bill proposed by US Congressman David Cicilline from Rhode Island who “would provide a temporary haven for online content publishers to collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms regarding the terms under which their content may be distributed.”

In general, these measures aim to strengthen the bargaining power of news organizations and help them extract value from tech giants for content produced by newsrooms. The novelty of the Australian model lies in its arbitration mechanism, a sort of membrane between the parties intended to help them arrive at a fair exchange of value.

Australian law is likely to be passed, so this grand experiment of returning capital to the news media will soon be underway. We’ll see how it works and whether the concerns of opponents are justified – whether large news agencies are favored over small ones, for example, or whether the money ends up being spent to produce more journalism.

But given the objections to this approach, what other options are there? If the new subscription models are not enough to support the media industry, what else can be done to push billions of dollars into journalism?

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