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Make Google & Facebook support public interest journalism

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (left), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (middle) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right).

By LAWRENCE GIBBONS

Everyone recalls the great news blackout of 2021. Earlier this year, Facebook prevented Australians from posting news stories on their platform. The move came in response to a proposed new law giving the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg the power to force Facebook and Google to bargain with Australian media companies, big and small.

For several weeks in February, Australians were prevented from posting news stories on their Facebook page. At the peak of a pandemic, while Zuckerberg’s algorithms disseminated misinformation at an alarming rate, no one on our island continent could share fact-based journalism via Facebook.

Despite Facebook’s news ban, the Parliament passed a bill requiring both Facebook and Google to negotiate with Australian media companies. Under the new law, a Register was set up by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA) certifying that a publisher produced public interest journalism and could bargain with the tech titans. This publication was accredited by the ACMA to negotiate with Google and Facebook.

Together, Google and Facebook have eroded the stability, authority and viability of the free press in our democratic society. Their algorithms are designed to distribute information based on a user’s prejudices, beliefs, and personal opinions. You only see what the algorithms think you want to see through a distorted hall of mirrors based on your own existing world view.

Public Interest journalism seeks to hold power to account, to counter prejudices and to correct mistruths. The Silicon Valley villains undermine our very democratic institutions by increasing our distrust in authority. We live in an opinion-based universe where any position can be proved via Google or disseminated via Facebook.

The only antidote to the existential threat facing public interest journalism and democracy itself is the distribution of digital funds to publishers big and small. It appeared the Australian government had done what no other nation had the guts to do: hold Google and Facebook to account.

At long last the very companies that had contributed to the decimation of independent media would help us pay journalists to produce unique, vital, and indispensable news content. We sent a letter to both Google and Facebook advising them that we were ready to do a deal. We received no response, other than an invitation from Facebook to apply for a possible grant later in the year.

While the Parliament had enacted a new Mandatory Bargaining Code, there was just one hitch. Josh Frydenberg had chosen not to exercise the option to make the Bargaining Code mandatory for either Facebook or Google.

To placate the Treasurer, Google and Facebook did deals with Australia’s largest media companies. Rupert Murdoch at News Ltd, Kerry Stokes at 7 News, and Peter Costello at 9 Entertainment along with a handful of other fortunate media companies got deals. The rest of us were out of luck.

Rod Sims, the Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (the ACCC), first proposed a new Bargaining Code to address market imbalances in the national media landscape. But the new code had the perverse effect of only providing further financial advantages to a few media moguls in what has long been one of the most anti-competitive, consolidated media markets in the free world.

In response to being locked out of the digital coffers, this publication has joined forces with other Public Interest Publishers. Together, we will ask the ACCC to allow us to collectively bargain with Google and Facebook. Individually we have little chance of being taken seriously. Together, along with any other interested public interest publishers we will be harder to ignore.

Our group of Public Interest Publishers has also lodged a petition in the Federal Parliament calling on the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to make the Bargaining Code mandatory for both Google and Facebook so they will bargain with small and medium publishers and not just a few mega media corporations. The MP for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek will table our petition in the Parliament.

Support independent journalism and this publication by signing our petition before the 24th of November. You have a right to receive independent, local public interest journalism in a democratic society and we want to keep doing our job by informing, engaging and challenging.

Sign our petition here.

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