India needs a news media bargaining code like Australia

Experts debate the publisher-platform relationship

Rodney Sims, ex-chairperson of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which was instrumental in implementing the news media bargaining code, says India can copy Australia's model.

As the debate over Big Tech versus news publishers intensifies, there is an increased push from global experts for Indian news entities to emulate the Australian, or even the Canadian, models to govern the commercial relationships between news businesses and the carrier digital platforms.

News publishers in India and across the world, both print and digital, have been calling for more bargaining power against the IT giants such as Google and Facebook, who are said to be abusing their dominant positions, imposing unfair terms on media organizations, and not giving them their due share of the digital revenues.

In fact, many countries are cracking down on Big Tech companies over their alleged monopolistic practices and privacy law violations. Australia was one of the first countries to come up with a new law requiring Facebook and Google to pay local news publishers to link their content on their news feeds or search results. The agreement was forced by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) after Google and Facebook declined repeated requests to amicably negotiate with the news publishers.

Taking part in a recent virtual roundtable organized by the Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA) – a New Delhi-based independent advocacy body representing the digital arms of 17 news media businesses – and, experts such as Rodney Sims, ex-chairperson of the ACCC, said India should take a cue from the Australian News Media Bargaining Code that governs commercial relationships between Australian news businesses and ‘designated’ digital platforms.

The Australian government issued the code to address the imbalances in bargaining power between news businesses and the platforms when the voluntary or negotiated guideline did not come about. At first, Google refused to comply with the code and threatened to withdraw its search services in Australia if the ACCC draft was implemented, as Sims explained. But, backed by Microsoft which offered its alternative search engine, Bing, the Australian government held on – and Google backed down.

Something similar played out with Facebook, which took down news content, including bushfires and Covid warnings in Australia. It may be mentioned that the 2019-2020 bushfires were one of the worst in Australia’s recorded history. This led to a huge backlash and people started boycotting Facebook, which then also backed down, Sims said.

According to Sims, there are three provisions in Australia’s code – negotiation, arbitration, and collective bargaining by the players to maintain balance. As a result of its implementation – Google and Facebook have together paid more than Australian$ 200 million dollars per year so far to the news media organizations in that country. The news companies also struck deals with the social media platform to benefit their journalists.

Sims said Google and Facebook were earlier using the media businesses’ content without paying. “They needed news media content on their platforms. But they did not require news media content from all media businesses. On the other hand, each media business needed to be on Google and Facebook for survival. This led to an imbalance in bargaining power,” said Sims.

“This was a market failure. This one mattered because it was having a damaging effect on media, journalism, and on society because we are certainly very clear that journalism is fundamental to a well-functioning society and so this issue had to be addressed,” e4m quoted Sims as saying. “My advice to India is to copy the News Media Bargaining Code.”

Paul Thomas, managing director of the Star News Group, spoke about how digital platforms used their content and took advantage of their advertisers for years. “It’s great that Australia ensured this power balance was evened.” According to Thomas, in environments such as India, the government should provide a legislative framework that forces platforms to the table, and enables small publishers to work together as a collective to negotiate, which provides a much greater power balance.

The Online News Act Canada

In a second roundtable, publishers said the Canadian model, which is slightly different from the Australian code, is also worth looking at and emulating. Paul Deegan, president, and chief executive officer of News Media Canada, said competition authorities around the world are coming to terms with the dominance of Google and Meta in the ad market, but not enough has been done to address it. He explained how Google and Meta picking ‘winners and losers’ while doing content licensing agreements creates a situation of haves and have-nots among news publishers. “But the power imbalance notwithstanding, publishers will be in a better bargaining position if they stand together,” he said.

The Online News Act Canada requires ‘digital news intermediaries’ – essentially, Big Tech platforms – to negotiate revenue-sharing with Canadian news publishers for use of their online news content.

Unlike in Australia, where the government plays a central role, Canada’s bill empowers the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to oversee the publisher-platform relationship, negotiations, and the revenue-sharing deals they strike. If Canada’s draft law – introduced in Parliament this year – comes into effect, the revenues resulting from the implementation of the code could cover almost one-third of Canadian newsroom costs, reports said.

The Competition Commission of India

In India too, there is an increased cry for action against the big tech companies over their monopolistic practices with at least three complaints against Google with the Competition Commission of India (CCI), which fined the tech giant Rs 2,274 crore in two back-to-back orders in October this year in other cases related to its Play Store policies and Android ecosystem.

The News Broadcasters & Digital Association, the DNPA, and the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) filed three separate complaints against Google with the CCI which clubbed all the cases owing to their similar nature.

The INS has asked Google to compensate them for carrying their content online by sharing 85% of its ad revenues. DNPA says more than 50% of the total traffic on news websites is routed through Google, which determines which websites get discovered. The News Broadcasters also want adequate revenue for their content on Google.

The DNPA includes big media houses such as Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar, Indian Express, Malayala Manorama, ETV, India Today Group, Times Group, Amar Ujala, Hindustan Times, Zee Media, ABP Network, Lokmat, NDTV, and New Indian.

The government of India is also mulling regulatory interventions to force tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, and Apple to pay Indian news publishers, both print and digital, a part of their revenue for using their original content. The minister of state for electronics and information technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, publicly indicated as much, in September.

Amid these debates and discussions, the crux of the story is that the Indian news publishers have to stay united in order to leverage their collective bargaining power with big tech. However, as in other countries only government legislation can compel the big platforms to come down to create a more level playing field. 

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