Australia Moves to Force Google and Facebook to Compensate Media Outlets
MELBOURNE, Australia — The Australian government said on Monday that Google and Facebook would have to pay media outlets for news content in the country, part of an emerging global effort to rescue local publishers by moving to compel tech giants to share their advertising revenue.
The decision to mandate compensation for news articles displayed on Facebook pages or in Google search results — important drivers of traffic for those platforms — comes as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates years of advertising losses at media outlets large and small.
In the United States, regional publishers have cut staffs that were already diminished, and newspapers as large as The Los Angeles Times have announced furloughs and pay cuts. In Australia, as in America, dozens of smaller publishers have suspended printing or shuttered completely in recent weeks.
“We can’t deny the importance of creating a level playing field, ensuring a fair go for companies and the appropriate compensation for content,” Josh Frydenberg, the country’s treasurer, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the public broadcaster, on Monday.
He said that the government had decided to issue binding rules after talks with Google and Facebook on a voluntary system stalled.
“We won’t bow to their threats,” he told reporters in Canberra, the capital. “This is a big mountain to climb. These are big companies that we’re dealing with, but there’s also so much at stake that we are prepared to fight.”
Representatives of Google and Facebook in Australia said they had been working hard to develop the voluntary code, which they said would have supported news organizations, especially during a pandemic. Although readership of local news outlets has surged, many companies have withdrawn advertising as lockdowns slowed the economy.
“We’re disappointed by the government’s announcement,” Will Easton, the managing director of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, said in a statement. He said the company had invested millions of dollars to support local Australian publishing “through content arrangements, partnerships and training.”
Gustaf Brusewitz, a spokesman for Google in Australia, said in a statement that the company had “sought to work constructively with industry” and would continue to do so under the new mandatory rules, which are set to be unveiled in July.
“Since February, we have engaged with more than 25 Australian publishers to get their input on a voluntary code,” he said.
News content has been lucrative for the big online platforms. Google made $4.7 billion in 2018 from content produced by the news industry, according to a study released last year, but little of that flowed to media outlets. Google called the figure inaccurate and said searches on its service sent many users to news outlets’ websites.
As publishers have suffered cuts or shut down, countries have begun taking action to preserve local news.
After the European Union brought in new online copyright rules in March 2019, the antitrust authorities in France ordered Google to negotiate with publishers to pay for news content shown in search results. Before the E.U. overhaul, Google had worked around attempts by countries like Spain and Germany to force it to compensate publishers. In Spain, it responded by shutting down its Google News site.
In the United States, a bill was introduced in Congress last year to give news publishers temporary exemptions from antitrust laws in order to negotiate collectively with tech giants.
Journalism experts said they hoped Australia could help lead the way with rigorous enforcement.
“This is going to have executives in Facebook and Google hunched around a boardroom table for many, many weeks figuring out how they are going to cope with the inevitable cost,” said Monica Attard, the head of journalism at the University of Technology Sydney.
She said that while Australia’s decision could lay the groundwork for other governments to “go after the tech giants,” its success would depend on the details of how the digital platforms are required to pay media outlets.
“Governments around the world have actually been struggling with this issue for many, many years,” Professor Attard said. “I’m not sure this decision gets us to a final point,” she added, “but it’s something.”
Others said the measures fell far short of the overhauls that might be needed to rescue Australian journalism, which has experienced significant funding cuts and raids that have threatened press freedom.
“I don’t think it will be enough to challenge the many issues that exist in the media landscape in Australia,” said Alix Foster Vander Elst, a campaign director at GetUp!, an activist group that calls for a more participatory democracy and press freedom.
She said it was crucial to increase government funding to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which delivered vital notices during Australia’s unprecedented bush fires in recent months, and now during a pandemic.
Ms. Foster Vander Elst said it was disappointing that it had taken the closing of dozens of papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media magnate, to have Australia’s government step in over the collapse of the country’s local media.
It’s “a welcome first step,” she said, “but there’s so much more that needs to be done.”