The battle of media titans over their profits — and our data — triggered by Australia’s attempt to make Google and Facebook pay for the news they use has little to do with the public interest. If we are worried about the quality of news and information, there’s not much to choose between the Murdoch press, which backs the news bargaining code proposed by the Australian government, and Facebook’s disinformation mills. The two often work hand in glove, as demonstrated by the way Rupert Murdoch’s flagship paper, The Australian, published false narratives about the devastating bushfires last year, many of them poached from the online conspiracy theory fever swamp. In particular, as The New York Times has noted, The Australian echoed debunked claims that arsonists were to blame for the catastrophic fire season — even as online trolls and bot farms circulated the same false information online.
The affinity between The Australian and the social media trolls should come as no surprise. Both increasingly rely on the strategy for cutting through the online clutter by catering to the algorithms that favor sensationalism and controversy over reality. Providing News Corp and similar commercial media outlets with extra funding and, as the Australian proposal envisions, greater access to audience data, will only cement a business model beholden to the priorities of engagement over an informed populace.
Facebook Wants to Read Your Brain
The important omission in much of the media brouhaha following Facebook’s dramatic decision to pull all local and international news content from the feeds of its Australian users is that the proposal supported by the Murdoch press and its allies in Canberra will very likely help undermine the public service media model that has been in place in Australia for almost a century. The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) became the nation’s great information unifier by providing news and entertainment programming to remote rural areas where commercial broadcasters were too costly to support. The Murdoch press has long complained about the unfair competition posed by publicly subsidized media outlets, and the political right — as is so often the case — has complained that its reality-based coverage is not friendly enough.
So it is perhaps not surprising that the media bargaining code carries a potential poison pill for public service broadcasting. The prospect that the ABC might also get a cut of revenues resulting from the code would make it reliant on the commercial priorities of online platforms like Google and Facebook. These platforms are not neutral: They select the content that garners the most attention online, regardless of veracity or accuracy. Forcing the ABC to rely on the commercial platforms for revenues would create competition on the terms set by the algorithms: controversy, sensationalism, fear and anger.
The real danger of the bargaining code is not that it might fail, but that it might succeed in subjecting all media outlets to the economic whims of a small group of unaccountable media corporations in Silicon Valley. This is a self-destructive move for a democratic society. Social media platforms do not see themselves as content creators or publishers and have none of the public service motivations that even many commercial news outlets managed to preserve over the course of the 20th century. They have over and over again proven reluctant to take responsibility for the content they select and pump into people’s news feeds, downplaying the damage they have done to the news and information environment, to the process of democratic deliberation and to the public interest of the countries where they reap their profits.
The solution to their decimation of the commercial model that supported the Murdoch press and others is not to cement the dominance of a Murdoch-Facebook commercial partnership but to provide an alternative to it. Suggestively, public service media work well with the model of the open internet. Because their content is already publicly bought and paid for, they can treat the free online circulation of their content as an unalloyed public benefit, not as a lost revenue opportunity. Because their content is bought and paid for, they do not need to subject themselves to the commercial priorities of the platforms.
The challenge to focus on, as the commercial players maneuver, is how to bolster the public service model. The answer is relatively close to hand. The major tech platforms notoriously dodge taxes and work their way through the tax loopholes. The six major tech companies have managed to get out of paying some $10 billion a year in corporate taxes between 2010 and 2019. In Australia alone, Google paid only about 2% tax on $4.3 billion worth of revenues. At a corporate tax rate of 30%, Google alone would generate tax revenue greater than the entire annual budget of the ABC. Not only are the tech giants making huge profits by torpedoing the existing media business model, but they are finding ways to dodge the tax obligations that might help nations address the devastation of local news and investigative reporting the platforms leave in their wake.
We don’t need to create new taxes for the tech companies — we just need to counter the strategies they use to get around paying their fair share. Australia’s news bargaining code seeks to subject all news outlets to the priorities of the platforms. If recent events have taught us anything at all, it is that democracy demands an alternative to them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.