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The past week saw some drama unfold “down under” when Facebook tried to flex its big tech muscles against the government of Australia.
Last year, for those not following, the Australian parliament set out to force big tech — in this case Facebook and Google — to pay news publishers for the content they share on their platforms. After all, they control the news cycle through their algorithms which is geared not to maintaining healthy democratic societies but rather…. you guessed it: maximizing profit.
I’ve been following this development and came across this op-ed by David Chavern, president and ceo of the News Media Alliance. Chavern claims that this move by Australia to force Facebook to pay up (Google already agreed) could and must save professional journalism.
There is a challenge here, I will admit. Facebook and Google carved out a seriously profitable economic model for themselves while traditional news corporations are barely surviving, with many having to shut their doors. Journalists cost money. In a purely capitalist society, we would let them die the way of the horse and buggy.
But the events on Capitol Hill in January show us that we cannot leave the health of our democracies to those who only concern themselves with profit margins. Even if traditional media is struggling financially, and until it figures out another way to earn revenue, it would seem the role of the government to intervene. The Australian government could have tried subsidies, but forcing big tech to split some of the revenues off this content with the media companies seems the better way. The mechanics of this entire deal are not fully clear to me. However the outcome is.
And even if the big publishers survive, what about small ones? Local government also requires journalists to prevent corruption, expose lies and increase transparency. Most importantly, perhaps to build a sense of community, of a shared reality. More than anything, it seems that the stronger big tech gets, the more they are happy to push people into their digital echo chambers to keep making a buck on advertising. In such a reality, a free professional press is even more crucial — to fight misinformation and report the truth.
Chavern writes: “News publishers all around the world need legally established compensation systems that fairly value their journalism and provide dispute resolution mechanisms that are outside the control of the platforms. The Australian government has stepped forward and proposed just such a system. The bargaining code is brave, thoughtful and right. It could well mark a positive turning of the tide for the future of journalism, not only in Australia but across the globe.”
We here in the US might learn from this move. Our newspapers and journalists are struggling, just like everywhere. Let’s not kid ourselves — Facebook and Google’s profits aren’t going anywhere. This is barely a dent in their year. But for journalism, this could be a life saver.