Facebook and Google are holding their tongue on a controversial federal government plan to make them pay for the news content they supply to users, reserving judgment on the ambitious code as media companies rejoice.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher finally detailed the long-awaited news media code on Tuesday, after many months of negotiation and preparation.
The actual legislation won’t be introduced until Wednesday, so firm details are not yet known, but the ministers said the new rules would force Facebook and Google to pay for news content, and negotiate with news organisations on the price.
The government said the code, to be administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, was needed to address how social media companies had sucked up the advertising revenue that media outlets had traditionally relied upon.
Media companies and the government argued it wasn’t fair for Facebook and Google to make profits from serving up links to news content, while the organisations actually producing that content were not rewarded.
Facebook and Google had previously threatened to block Australian users from posting or searching for news content online, to skirt any obligation under the code to pay media companies for content.
But on Tuesday, both giants said they were still considering their response to the final legislation.
When contacted by The New Daily, a Google spokesman simply said: “We haven’t seen the revised code yet.”
Facebook Australia’s managing director Will Easton gave TND a similar answer.
“We will review the draft legislation once it’s introduced to Parliament and made public,” Mr Easton said.
“We’ll continue to engage through the upcoming parliamentary process with the goal of landing on a workable framework to support Australia’s news ecosystem.”
Neither company commented on whether they would follow through on their threats to limit news content for Australian users.
Paul Murphy, chief executive of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, a trade union that represents journalists across Australia, had a positive reaction to the code but said it needed to go further and help smaller outlets too – not just the biggest media players.
“The legislation has, quite properly, recognised that digital platforms that use editorial content created by media outlets should pay for the content they use,” Mr Murphy told TND.
“And media outlets should be compensated for that content in recognition of the revenue and audiences that are lost to the digital platforms.
“However, the code shouldn’t provide revenue for big media outlets alone.
“It’s essential that there is a guarantee that any organisation receiving funding should invest it directly into journalism.”
Mr Murphy said community media had been “hammered” by COVID, with newsrooms shut down or suffering drastic staff cuts due to advertising dips.
Director of The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, Peter Lewis, called the code “an attempt to rebalance the equation”.
He said it was important to see the platforms “recognising the value of facts via a bargaining deal that would fund journalism into the future”.
“We know the big tech companies have been working hard to stop these changes and we can expect more threats over the summer,” Mr Lewis said.
Labor, Greens back code
Both Labor and the Greens said they were broadly supportive of the government’s plans, but wanted to see more detail.
“We do want to see quality journalism properly paid for in this country. We do want to make sure that regulation keeps up with technological change in this really sensitive and really important part of our economy,” shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said.
However, Dr Chalmers attacked the government for “dithering, delaying, and stuffing around” the implementation of the code, which will now not come into force until at least early 2021.
The legislation won’t be introduced into Parliament until Wednesday, and has no chance of passing before the end of the final sitting week of the year on Thursday afternoon.
“It was this time last year that the government said they would act to level the playing field between the tech platforms and the news media organisations … last month, Josh Frydenberg said it would all be done and dusted by this month. None of those things turned out to be true,” Dr Chalmers said.
Labor’s communications spokesperson Michelle Rowland said she was concerned Facebook and Google may come good on their threat to ban news content on their services in Australia.
The legislation is likely to be referred to a Senate inquiry for further investigation, and could possibly be further amended, before it comes to a final vote in the Parliament.
Greens media spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young welcomed the legislation and said it would help protect public interest journalism.