Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

The government will finally unveil its mandatory code for Google and Facebook

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher at a press conference at Parliament House

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (right) and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher at a press conference at Parliament House. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Image

“The world is watching,” said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, as he and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced that the government would introduce legislation tomorrow to establish its “News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code”, which would force Facebook and Google to pay for news content, thereby helping to sustain public-interest journalism. Frydenberg said the legislation would go to a Senate committee and that the guiding principle was to ensure that “the rules of the digital world mirror the rules of the physical world”. The legislation will address the bargaining power imbalance between the digital giants and news organisations – from News Corp to the ABC – by establishing a framework for negotiation that allows both sides to bargain in good faith and reach binding agreements. Where agreement is impossible it will ensure that an independent arbiter is able to determine the level of remuneration that should be paid under a “fair and balanced final offer arbitration model”. The treasurer explained that the legislation envisaged a “two-way value exchange”, taking into account the value to news outlets of the traffic generated by the digital platforms – initially covering Facebook’s newsfeed and Google Search – as well as the value of the news content. However, Frydenberg said, the “money can only go one way”.  

It seems strange to preordain, through legislation, that the outcome of a commercial negotiation can ultimately favour only one side, and there will no doubt be accusations that the code is a sop to the government’s friends at News Corp, designed to prop up the financial viability of legacy newspapers. However, it is difficult to deny that Google and Facebook have acquired overwhelming market dominance, to the detriment of media outlets in print, broadcast and digital media.

The Australia Institute’s Centre For Responsible Technology welcomed the code as a “globally significant response to the growing power of Big Tech”. In a statement released this afternoon, the centre’s director, Peter Lewis, said the laws would give media organisations a chance to build a viable business model. “Around the globe, politics has been brutalised by the transfer of facet-based public discourse to private networks fuelled by disinformation and division,” he said. “The News Media Bargaining Code is an attempt to rebalance the equation – with platforms recognising the value of facts via a bargaining deal that would fund journalism into the future. This legislation demands cross-party support: a clear statement from all our elected representatives that will stand up for democracy. We know the big tech companies have been working hard to stop these changes and we can expect more threats over the summer.” 

At a doorstop press conference this afternoon, shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said the government had been “dithering and delaying and stuffing around” for more than a year since the ACCC delivered the final report of its Digital Platforms Inquiry in July 2019. Nonetheless, Chalmers said, Labor would engage constructively with the legislation and was prepared to support, in principle, “efforts to ensure that the playing field is levelled between the tech platforms and the news media organisations”.

Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland said the Opposition would seek to ensure the legislation recognised the inherent value of news media. “Not all content is created equal,” she said. “So, it is important that journalism is properly recompensed and recognised for the unique characteristics that it holds.” Secondly, she said, Labor hopes to ensure the code supports public-interest journalism, “especially in regional areas, where we have whole news deserts emerging”. Thirdly, Labor would seek to ensure there weren’t worse outcomes for consumers, half of whom get their news content via digital platforms. On that point, Rowland addressed the underlying fear that Google and Facebook might restrict their services or pull out of the country altogether. “It would be a detrimental thing for Australian consumers to lose this form of innovation,” she said. “The key question here is: has the government delivered a workable code? We have seen media reports that this will be referred to a Senate committee and we will work through that process to find out whether that is the case and if not why not.”

Both Frydenberg and Fletcher today stressed the level of consultation with the platforms, and the extent to which their concerns had been taken on board in the drafting of the legislation. Clearly the government also hopes there will be no pull-outs by the digital giants, and Fletcher made clear that neither YouTube nor Instagram would be included at the outset. Fletcher flagged that he understood some voluntary agreements between the platforms and certain news media outlets were already in the offing.

On the media side, both the ABC and SBS will be included, as expected, and Fletcher said the former had promised to invest any revenue from digital platforms into regional journalism. Fletcher all but ruled out deducting any revenue to the ABC from the government’s normal triennial budget funding for the broadcaster. “We certainly don’t intend to do that,” Fletcher said. Hopefully he stands by it.

“There is no need to rush something through that the government has had on the notice paper for 12 months … It is not the fault of this Senate that the government has been unable to get its act together.”

Labor senator for the Northern Territory Malarndirri McCarthy slams the Morrison government for rushing its cashless debit card legislation through the parliament while withholding a study of the impact of the card in four trial sites in WA, SA and Queensland.

“The legislative agenda for the Senate this week is such that the courts merger bill won’t be progressed. It will be a priority when parliament resumes.”

A spokesman for Attorney-General Christian Porter flags that time has run out for the government to pass controversial legislation (supported by One Nation) to merge the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court.

What’s really behind China’s break-up with Australia?
This year we’ve seen relations between Australia and China plummet. But the story of Australia’s increasing friction with China goes back much further than the recent storm over a tweet. Today, Jonathan Pearlman on how serious the current situation is, and whether there’s a solution to the tension.

The number of childcare workers who have been underpaid as much as $80 million by G8 Education, which owns around 470 childcare centres in Australia.

“Amendments to be introduced into the Senate this week will: further reinforce the independence of the National Commissioner; confirm the National Commissioner’s role extends to considering attempted suicides and other lived experiences; incorporate a requirement for a review of the National Commissioner function after three years; acknowledge the valuable contribution that families and others affected by deaths by suicide will make to the National Commissioner’s work, where they wish to contribute; [and] confirm the National Commissioner’s ability to make recommendations about support services for families and others affected by a suicide death.”

Attorney-General Christian Porter announces amendments to the bill to establish a national commissioner for defence and veteran suicide prevention.

The list

“The refrain that ‘Australians won’t pick fruit’ has been loudly proclaimed in public discourse for decades … Now, with border restrictions and most backpackers having returned home, the focus is back on lazy local labour. An EY report suggested there is a shortfall of 26,000 workers. The National Farmers Federation warns that produce worth $6.3 billion is at risk of being left to rot. The crisis can only be resolved by asking a new question: Why won’t Australians pick fruit?”

“The first disappointing thing about Happiest Season, a new Christmas comedy – with a lesbian twist! – is that its co-star, Kristen Stewart, does not appear at any point in the film wearing a Santa hat. Earth to movie studio: do you know how many women would have paid good money to see this, would have screen-capped and tweeted and direct messaged it across the internet, accompanied by rows of the Hot Face emoji and jokes about waiting up for Santa? What are you, hustlers or idiots?”

“Farhad Rahmati is waiting for retribution. Every time the Iranian refugee speaks out about being forcibly transferred between detention facilities in Australia, which usually occurs in handcuffs and without warning, he is transferred again. Rahmati knows that speaking to The Saturday Paper will likely trigger another punitive transfer. But he is determined to take that risk.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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