Conflict Between Facebook, Google and Publishers Spotlighted Amid CCP Virus Crisis

April 15, 2020 Updated: April 18, 2020

Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland is the latest voice in a growing chorus of executives and politicians pushing tech giants Google and Facebook to compensate media publishers for re-using their content.

In recent weeks, Australian media companies have been caught between a “rock and a hard place” as they deal with falling advertising revenues. This has been caused by two things, the ongoing loss of market share (pdf) to the digital giants; and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus.

“It’s actually a perverse situation where the media is actually getting good ratings because people are at home and ready to consume,” said Rowland.

However, media companies could not sell advertising because “the economy has shut down” and at the same time they were losing revenue to the digital platforms.

French Ruling Against Google 

Rowland’s comments follow a ruling against Google by the French competition regulator on April 9.

The injunction requires Google to negotiate with media publishers in France on a remuneration model for re-using content.

Negotiations must begin within three months and any deal will be backdated to include content released from late 2019 onward.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher supported the move saying the tech giants needed to find a way to pay Australian content producers and publishers.

Google and Facebook in Australia

In July 2019, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released the Digital Platforms Inquiry report, which made recommendations on a framework for regulating the digital media space.

The federal government acted on the report by establishing a new special unit within the ACCC to monitor the state of competition in digital media. Another initiative was to ask media entities, along with Facebook and Google, to negotiate a voluntary code to address the issue.

The ACCC will update the government on progress in May 2020. If no agreement is finalised by November, the government will consider implementing a mandatory code.

In an interview with Radio National on April 2, Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australia admitted that progress was slow and they couldn’t show they had “even got to the first base.”

Fiona Martin, senior lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at the University of Sydney, told the Epoch Times in an email that Google has traditionally been slow to respond to government attempts to regulate it.

“When Spain introduced a similar law in 2014, Google shut down its local Google News service and removed Spanish media outlets from its feeds,” she said.

Martin said Google tended to change its corporate behaviour only when it was forced by “hard regulation or fines.”

She cited a 50 million euro fine (AU$86 million) imposed on Google by French data regulators in early 2019 for Google’s failure to abide by privacy laws.

Martin held little hope a voluntary code would be reached locally saying the “dire economic state of Australian media companies” would make an agreement unlikely and the federal government would eventually have to step in.

CCP Virus Impact on Domestic Media

The CCP virus crisis has placed pressure on businesses, who in turn, have cut advertising spending. These cuts have forced media companies to make drastic cost savings.

In recent weeks, Foxtel made redundant 200 employees, News Corp suspended 60 regional newspaper titles, and industry body Commercial Radio Australia, asked for a government bailout.

The federal government responded with a media relief package on April 15.

Martin was not optimistic about the long-term prospects of traditional media outlets saying, “It will certainly spell the end of most, if not all, print newspapers. But the biggest catastrophe in media is the hit to television and film production, with many shoots cancelled, and production houses and publicists without work, along with freelance crews, post-production businesses, and caterers.”

Even if an agreement with the tech giants is struck, Martin said, “That would be at least one small sliver of hope in an otherwise grim media outlook.”