On Monday, the Australian government said it planned to succeed where its European counterparts had failed: forcing Facebook and Google to pay for news.
“Australia seeks to become the first country in the world to successfully require payment for content,” Australia Treasurer Josh Frydenberg wrote in the Australian. “There is too much at stake — nothing less than the future of our media landscape.”
On April 19, Frydenberg announced that despite negotiations between the Australian government and Google and Facebook that had been ongoing since December, the government would put forward a plan in which those companies would be required to pay news organizations for use of their material. The plan is set to be unveiled in July and put into law soon after, accelerated by the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which one analyst called a "media extinction event."
Australia's declaration — which left one Facebook executive telling BuzzFeed News they were “disappointed” — might preview what’s to come around the globe as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the news industry while leaving the tech giants relatively less damaged.
“COVID-19 is putting tremendous pressure on publishers,” David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a global trade group, told BuzzFeed News. “That ultimately puts pressures on the platforms to come up with a sustainable deal for the publishing industry.”
And that pressure could come from national governments, including that of the United States.
“The pressure has been ratcheting up in Europe, is now ratcheting up in Australia, and it's also ratcheting up but more quietly in the United States,” news industry analyst Ken Doctor told BuzzFeed News. “We'll see more pressure in the US in 2021, but very much patterned on the same ideas that we're seeing in Australia today.”
An estimated 33,000 news industry workers in the US have been furloughed, been laid off, or taken pay cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic, another blow to an industry that has been in decline ever since Craigslist put classified ads online for free. (BuzzFeed employees have taken pay cuts.)
“News publishing was a financially weak business before COVID-19, and COVID-19 is crushing it,” he said. “But it's doing it just in this moment when people want and need content more than ever.”
Though Facebook and Google have successfully beaten back similar efforts by the French, Spanish, and German governments over the past decade, they now face a potentially more sustained campaign to force them to pay news outlets for the third-party content that's a key engine of their ad businesses.
In the United States, the News Media Alliance is pushing for changes to federal law to allow publishers to negotiate collectively with the tech giants, which is currently prohibited by antitrust laws. “We've been pushing for this safe harbor bill in Congress, which has pretty good support, by the way, to allow publishers to collectively negotiate with the platforms,” Chavern said, of a bill written by Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline. “All of these things are going to a similar end, which is the platforms are going to have to start returning value back to publishing.”
Amy Eisman, director of the Journalism Division at American University, expressed reservations about government involvement in news funding, telling BuzzFeed News it could lead to government control of coverage. Still, she said some of her colleagues were now supporting national governments helping news publishers receive more money, via taxes on tech companies or other methods. “I do think that there is a bit more light on that idea than there has been in the past," she said.
"Wherever we go with this, we have to figure out a way for journalists to get paid for news right now,” Eisman said. “This is the most important time for that.”
Although Facebook and Google have announced they’ll be voluntarily paying hundreds of millions of dollars to news publishers via programs like the Google News Initiative and Facebook Journalism Project, the tech giants may look askance at being forced to pay for news.
While Facebook and Google tend to make grants to news organizations when they’re under political pressure, that support typically falls short of the amount needed to sustain the publishing industry. “That sounds like a nice amount of money,” Doctor said. “But in terms of making a difference to the future of what local news people get across the country, it's a drop in the bucket.”
Google — which features news in 8% to 14% of its search results, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission — did not respond to a request for comment. Facebook, meanwhile, shared dismay at Australia’s plan.
“We’re disappointed by the [Australian] government's announcement,” Will Easton, Facebook managing director for Australia and New Zealand, told BuzzFeed News. “COVID-19 has impacted every business and industry across the country, including publishers, which is why we announced a new, global investment to support news organizations at a time when advertising revenue is declining.”