As mentioned in my editorial yesterday, I do not claim to be an unbiased commentator on the News Media Bargaining Code (NMBC) negotiations in Australia. I was Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) when it designed the NMBC and was commissioned by the Australian Government to implement it.
As Canada moves forward with its Bill C-18, the Online News Actyou can expect a strong reaction from Google and Meta.
Google publicly supported and campaigned that the NMBC would allow big business to control the internet. This argument has often caused amazement, because the “big company” Google was thinking of was News Corp, which accounts for less than one percent of Google’s market value. Also, many consider Google itself to be the big corporation that controls the internet.
In a recent representation to the United States Copyright Office, expressing concern that the NMBC might be replicated in the United States, Google repeated, as follows, the arguments it often uses when lobbies in Australia:
“The ability to link freely is an essential feature of the free and open web. Changing this dynamic would not only have a negative impact on the resulting economic model, it would force information to be consumed in a particular way, favoring a restricted range of sources for the dissemination of knowledge, and thus undermining democratic discourse and media diversity.”
Other arguments made by Google were, in the view of the ACCC and the government, misleading, but appeared to have some success. Google argued that this was an attempt by others to control what was seen on the internet. It seemed far-fetched.
In January 2021, Google for the first time publicly stated that if the NMBC becomes law, Google will block access to search in Australia. This statement generated a lot of attention in Australia and around the world. The reactions are numerous. Most considered Google to be a tough guy and didn’t like the ploy at all. Microsoft then stepped in and said it would invest more so its Bing search engine could take the place of Google, which then held 94% of the Australian search market. Eventually, an agreement was reached with Google.
Unlike Google, Facebook did not engage on these issues throughout the process. Facebook continued to reject the very idea of NMBC. In a stunning move, and without notifying the government, in February 2021, Facebook removed all news and many other items from its site. In Australia, we woke up to find out what Facebook had done.
This decision did not pay off for Facebook. Facebook not only blocked all news on its platform, but it also removed a lot of other information, such as information on how residents should react to a bushfire in their area and important health recommendations in a whole series of domains, which is all the more worrying as we were in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the context of a campaign of this type, it is never reasonable to abuse one’s power. The least we can say is that Facebook did not go with a dead hand.
Once the law was passed, the platforms entered into serious commercial negotiations with the press companies. First Google, then, with some delay, Facebook. The agreements were complex and their negotiations took a long time. Some felt that the platforms were not negotiating in good faith, but the ACCC’s ongoing contact with news organizations revealed the depth and frequency of discussions.
Some claim that only big media companies were able to make deals, which is simply untrue. Country Press Australia represents approximately 180 publications and 60 owners; several are actually very small and employ only a few journalists.
As President of the ACCC, I have repeatedly stated that NMBC deals bring in more than $200 million a year to news media companies. I overheard a Google rep say my $200 million estimate was just speculation. This is not the case. I have been in contact with most of the heads of newspaper companies after they have concluded their agreements with the digital platforms and I have discussed with them the ranges of the sums paid. So I’m sure it’s over $200 million.
The NMBC was a success on every level. He has almost entirely achieved his objective, and this, more quickly than what had initially been expected. Few other government measures can say the same. The world is watching Canada right now, and I’m available to share our experience with you.
Rod Sims is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. From 2011 to 2022 he was Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
This reflection is the second in a series of two.