BY LUCINDA SOUTHERN
For over a decade, regional publishers have been battling with Google, and more recently Facebook, to reimburse them for distributing publisher content on their free platforms. Those spats seem to be heating up as publisher pursuit of revenue during the coronavirus-induced recession becomes increasingly fraught.
While the skirmishes differ in each region, there are a few recurring similarities; regulators want to “level the playing field” on monopolistic tech platforms so publishers can be remunerated for the content shared. Critics and platforms attest that regulators don’t understand — and are not quick enough — to adapt to internet-based business models.
The duopoly also points to how they support the news industry via funding, content licensing programs like Facebook Watch, and carriage fees, while not making much money from news, but still delivering monetizible traffic to publishers.
Democratic ideologies like free access to news and funding journalism are being flung back and forth in the fray. Here’s a look at how the other regulators and publishers around the world have been trying to get those platforms to pay up.
Australia’s muscular approach
Last week, Australia’s lawmakers and antitrust watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, called Facebook’s threat to stop sharing news in Australia on Facebook and Instagram — during a pandemic no less — “ill-timed and misconceived.”
In July, the body released a draft for the News Media Bargaining Code. If passed, the code will require platforms to negotiate compensation with publishers if they feature content on their services. It would also require platforms give news publishers 28 days advance warning of any changes to their algorithms that might affect the placement of news. And also require the tech companies to provide the data they collect on users when those users interact with news content.
The social network spoke out saying that, if passed, it would “reluctantly” stop news sharing. Facebook said during the first five months of 2020 it sent 2.3 billion clicks from Facebook’s News Feed to Australian news websites and estimates that traffic is worth $200 million Australian dollars to publishers.
Google’s back and forth
Google has had its own tussle with the watchdog and lawmakers about the regulation, as Digiday reported in August, serving pop-up messages (“The way Aussies use Google is at risk”) open letters and myth busters, and faced rebuttals from lawmakers.
“The code in its current form simply isn’t workable,” said a Google spokesperson. “Our focus right now is on working to achieve a viable outcome that doesn’t put our services at risk and enables us to continue building constructive partnerships with news media businesses.”
Critics of the regulation
Media analyst Ben Thompson points out media mogul Rupert Murdoch owns most of the Australian press and has been the platforms’ biggest critic.
Beyond just Australia, a Bloomberg opinion piece argued that publisher business models were disrupted but not destroyed by Google and Facebook, and the former should take responsibility for their own revenue. No less, the platforms have also spent years arguing that they make limited revenue from news (about 4% of Facebook’s News Feed is “news,” Google reckons that only about 1% of searches in Australia have anything to do with current events).
France: The first EU state out the gate
President of The French Competition Authority Isabelle de Silva, said this last week that the last three months of negotiations with Google — about whether it should pay publishers to display snippets of text — had been a “failure.” Brace yourself, snippets are a recurring grievance from European publishers.
Last September, France ruled that Google would need to pay publishers to display snippets of text, the first of the European Union member states to implement a pan-EU law voted through in March 2019 that overhauled copyright reform. The reform introduced new “neighboring” rights meaning that press publishers can recoup their investment when content is made available via news aggregators or media monitoring services.
The following April, France’s competition authority ordered Google to negotiate with publishers after the search giant redesigned its Google News results pages, editing out snippets to show headlines and URLS only. The watchdog hit back at the move, deeming it anti-competitive (Google commands 90% of the search market in Europe) and that it “seriously and immediately damaged the press sector.” Google had to reinstate the snippets during the negotiation period.
“In France, over the last three months, we have met with French publisher associations and news agencies more than 30 times, and proposed multiple offers which cover neighboring rights and more, following the FCA’s decision,” said a Google spokesperson.
On Sept. 10 the FCA will hold a hearing to assess whether or not Google has negotiated “in good faith,” as it was stipulated back in April. It then expects to make a quick decision within the month, according to de Silva.
U.S.: Antitrust investigations at home
The heat from lawmakers facing tech platforms for their market dominance within the U.S. has been mounting, setting the foundations for future regulation.
Trade body, News Media Alliance, which represents around 2,000 publishers, is promoting a bill called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, legislation that would allow newspaper companies to collectively negotiate with online platforms for better terms. NMA CEO, David Chavern, has been a vocal commenter on the Australian government’s muscular approach to the platforms and expects the U.S. House of Representatives will be supportive of the proposals.
Facebook’s response to paying for news:
“We agree that we should pay for journalism and do more to help set publishers up for long-term success,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “The ability to collaborate with news publishers to build long-term sustainable business models is key.”
Last week Facebook expanded its Facebook News initiative and listed a number of other efforts it makes to support journalism, like its subscription tool and fact-checking projects.
“Consumer habits and news inventory vary by country,” said Facebook’s VP of global news partnerships, Cambell Brown, in the post, “so we’ll work closely with news partners in each country to tailor the experience and test ways to deliver a valuable experience for people while also honoring publishers’ business models.”
Germany: Battle weary
Germany’s publishers and regulators aren’t shy about doing battle with the tech giants. For now, German publishers like Spiegel Group are being paid as part of Google’s news licensing program, which is skeptically viewed for starting in the regions where regulators have applied more pressure.
Multiple lawsuits have flown back and forth against Google for, again, breaking copyright law by showing snippets in its news products, and then for market dominance when publisher traffic plummeted after the search giant removed snippets.
Now, the focus is on passing a domestic version of the EU copyright reform law.
“Axel Springer is open to examining co-operations with Facebook, Google and co., but only to the extent that they do not make it difficult or impossible to effectively exercise the Publisher’s Right,” said a spokesperson. “In this respect, we continue to work hard for the effective implementation of the EU Copyright Directive.”
Belgium: The early starters
Back in 2007, publishers in Belgium were upset at having their content “stolen” by Google for publishing links to articles from Belgian newspapers without permission (via its search engine) and fined Google a payment of €25,000 ($29,603) a day to the publishers for displaying content that breached copyright law. Facing years of regulatory pressure and threats of fines, Google agreed to help publishers to monetize news online and set up what would become the Google News Initiative.
Spain: Still no Google News
In 2014, Spain created legislation to make Google pay for snippets of news reused in its News aggregator. Google’s move was to ax the product, which still doesn’t operate in Spain today. As a result, smaller publishers felt the pain and traffic to local news plummeted.