OpinionFrontier Technology18 Feb 2022

One year on from Facebook unfriending Australia, is local journalism any better off?

Has the code seeking to address bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media and digital platforms worked for small publishers?

Photo Credit: andresr via Getty Images.

Twelve months ago today, we woke to discover that Facebook had “unfriended” Australia. With the flick of a switch, the social media behemoth changed its algorithms and blocked the people of Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content on its platform.

The manoeuvre not only impacted Australian news publishers but had unintended consequences for hundreds of other Facebook pages providing community and emergency information.

The flexing of Facebook’s global power came less than 24 hours after the News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code passed the people’s house in the parliament.

And, a week later, the bill, with several amendments negotiated at the 11th hour, made its way through the Senate and became law.

The code is regarded as world-leading micro-economic reform designed to address bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms.

Now twelve months on, it seems like an appropriate juncture to reflect on the implementation of the code. Has the bargaining power imbalance identified by ACCC Chair, Rod Sims, been remedied? Is the code delivering outcomes consistent with the government’s policy intent? Have the platforms struck deals with small and regional publishers as well as large ones?

The short answer is yes and no. It is true that most major Australian media outlets secured lucrative deals from Google and Facebook. And if they are using those funds to sustain public interest journalism, then that’s a positive.

However, many other Australian news publishers – mainly small businesses – who make valuable and meaningful contributions to their communities and to media diversity in Australia are yet to be remunerated.

For small publishers managing day-to-day operations, it can be hard to find the time, let alone a contact name locally, to progress opportunities with the digital platforms. Many of these small publishers have been accepted on the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s register of eligible news businesses, which recognises their legitimate contribution to public interest journalism. But having gone through that administrative process they have been left wondering what to do next.

That is why, in November last year, Minderoo Foundation’s Frontier Technology initiative agreed to support a group of small publishers by offering to collectively bargain on their behalf to help them negotiate deals with Google and Facebook.

Frontier Technology believes that small Australian publishers who produce public interest journalism for their communities should be given the same opportunity as large publishers to negotiate for use of their content for the public benefit.

These publishers have formed an alliance, known as Public Interest Publishers Alliance (PIPA). They work in rural communities, outer urban areas, with multicultural and LGBTQI+ communities, and some cover public interest journalism from the point of view of the arts, science and the environment. They provide a training ground for young journalists across Australia. They are filling gaps in the market, and in many cases their businesses are operating on the smell of an oily rag, with the publishers often paying themselves a pittance.

The code was designed to help support the sustainability of public interest journalism in Australia, and journalism that serves a public interest function comes in all shapes and sizes.

If, after 12 months, Facebook and Google still won’t deal meaningfully with small publishers, including those in PIPA through Frontier Technology’s collective bargaining efforts, or with direct deals, then it would be fair to say that the code has not done its job – yet.

Emma McDonald
by Emma McDonald

Emma McDonald is Senior Policy Adviser to Minderoo Foundation’s Frontier Technology initiative, which seeks to ensure accountability and transparency in the tech ecosystem and protection of rights for the benefit of the public.

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