Technology Giants Shaken as Australia Unleashes Game-Changing Regulations

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The tech world braces for upheaval as Australia unleashes a seismic wave of game-changing regulations that are set to challenge the dominance of technology giants.

Earlier this month, the Australian government introduced new legislation aimed at strengthening the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the country’s media regulator, in its efforts to combat the spread of harmful misinformation and disinformation by tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter on online platforms.

The fines imposed on search engines, social media platforms, dating websites, and online marketplaces for inadequate handling of disinformation could vary from nearly A$3 million (NZ$3.2m) to A$7 million or up to 5 per cent of their global turnover.

A noteworthy development is that the communications watchdog ACMA now holds the authority to request access to digital providers’ documents related to fake news.

“The regulator will be empowered to examine the operations of these platforms thoroughly,” stated Australian Communications Minister Michelle Rowland in a media announcement.

From Canada To Australia, Tech Giants Fight Fire With Fire

Meanwhile, the New Zealand government also intends to extend media content regulation to the online sphere, but their progress on this matter needs to catch up to Australia’s. The Department of Internal Affairs released a discussion paper after three years of contemplation, with public input open until the end of this month.

In contrast, successive Australian governments have proactively addressed significant tech companies, attracting attention from governments worldwide, including New Zealand.

Google is currently opposing a proposed law in Canada, known as the Online News Act, which would require tech firms to compensate news organisations for each story accessed through their services. In response, Google threatens to remove Canadian news from its search results, and Facebook’s owner, Meta, is following a similar course of action.

A spokesperson from Meta said they are actively moving towards permanently ending news availability in Canada. This tactic mirrors the approach employed by Facebook in Australia, which faced significant backlash and was reversed within a week.

Ultimately, Facebook and Google partially agreed with Australian news media outlets to avoid mandatory enforcement.

Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code: Making Big Tech Pay for Playing with News!

In 2021, under the leadership of Scott Morrison, the Australian government enacted legislation mandating big tech platforms to negotiate with Australia’s news media and compensate them for featuring their news on the platforms.

Rod Sims, the visionary behind the News Media Bargaining Code, renowned as the individual responsible for compelling Google and Meta to compensate for news, shared in a previous Mediawatch interview that the revenue generated from this initiative has been substantial.

“I am confident that the payments surpassed A$200 million, making NZ$40 to $50 million a suitable sum to be distributed among all media outlets,” asserted Willie Jackson, the Minister for Broadcasting and Media.

Minister Jackson has actively promoted agreements with tech giants to remunerate news media and is backed by the possibility of legislative intervention if required.

In a prior TVNZ Q+A interview in December, Minister Jackson stressed the importance of supporting smaller media entities like the Northern Advocate, Whanganui Chronicle, and Otago Daily Times, expressing his pride in proposing legislation to assist them. He expressed optimism that these media outlets would engage in fair negotiations.

In correspondence sent to tech companies before the interview, the Minister conveyed a similar message in writing, which elicited some dissatisfaction from Google.

A Tangled Web Of Agreements And Unanswered Questions

Recently, documents released under the Official Information Act unveiled a letter from Google New Zealand manager Caroline Rainsford, who asserted that Google had been engaging in good-faith dealings with the media in New Zealand. 

Rainsford highlighted that the Northern Advocate and Whanganui Chronicle were part of NZME, the country’s second-largest publisher, which had already agreed with Google for content on its News Showcase service. Google also raised concerns about the Minister’s deviation from standard practice in a policy paper that should have allowed public input.

In February, Google did strike an agreement with TVNZ, and last month, it secured deals with Stuff, Allied Press (publisher of the Otago Daily Times), The Spinoff, and several other smaller publishers, bringing the total number of publishers to 47.

Nevertheless, the situation with Meta, formerly known as Facebook, remains to be determined. Meta made a one-time deal with New Zealand Herald publisher NZME in April after NZME withdrew from collective negotiations.

A Battle For Fair News Content Prices And Media Control

There is a possibility that legislation will enforce further agreements. In June, Minister Jackson informed Parliament’s Social Services and Community Committee about a “fair bargaining” Bill, which would mandate large digital companies to negotiate reasonable prices for local news content. The Minister expressed hope to introduce the Bill before the upcoming election.

Jackson stated that their proposed legislation would incorporate elements from Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, which has reportedly enabled media to secure around A$200 million (NZ$212m) annually from Google and Meta, and Canada’s proposed Online News Act.

However, the draft Bill has yet to be released, and there will be limited opportunities to introduce it in Parliament before the upcoming election in October.

In the event of a change in government after the election, National Party broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of “forcing people to negotiate.”

Crossing borders to Australia, in 2021, former Age and ABC journalist Andrea Carson released a significant report on misinformation (funded by Facebook). 

Currently a professor of media and politics at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, Carson also authored The Grand Bargain, a comprehensive analysis of the groundbreaking deal struck with Australian news media. She says, “Big tech’s hold over the media industry may be set to change.”

“The Australian legislation was groundbreaking as it utilised competition law, not copyright law, to compel platforms to pay for third-party news content. It has had a ripple effect … making New Zealand an intriguing case for me to observe,” she conveyed.

She stressed that political will played a vital role in the process. “A conservative government introduced the NMBC [News Media Bargaining Code], but the consensus primarily lies among mainstream media organisations, as it opened up a new revenue stream for them. Smaller start-ups and media outlets have not benefited to the same extent,” 

“Facebook appeared to decide that after reaching 13 deals, that was sufficient, and it ceased further engagements with media organisations. In my opinion, this reflects a certain level of cynicism on the platforms,” she remarked.

Australian Government’s Crackdown Leaving Platforms Cautiously Contemplative

The platforms are also cautious about the Australian government’s crackdown on misinformation.

“If they are not transparent about their efforts to tackle this issue, what content they are removing, and how they are adjusting their algorithms, they might face fines,” Prof Carson pointed out.

“At this point, the legislation does not scrutinise individual pieces of misinformation and disinformation. It also excludes political content and – controversially – does not address mainstream media content on the platforms.”

AI poses another challenge for news media. As Rod Sims recently highlighted, big tech companies are scraping online content to feed their AI engines and accessing content behind newspaper paywalls.

“I believe Rod Sims is correct. Google and other platforms have indicated they will use AI for news stories and fact-checking. However, these stories do not arise out of thin air. To have accurate information, the algorithm needs to be trained based on an extensive database of news stories,” Prof Carson emphasised.

This is where the legislation may already be outdated, as it has not accounted for the value derived from this process – and there has been no valuation placed on the use of news for such purposes.

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