Its effort to discipline big technology firms will shape the future of democracy
Australia’s decision to take on big tech firms and adopt a principled stand on the issue is welcome. And so is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi — where, according to the Australian readout, Mr. Morrison spoke of the progress in the media-related legislation.
To understand Australia’s attempts to create a legal framework to get big tech firms to pay media publishers for the use of their content — and the recent deal between Google and News Corp whereby the latter will pay the former — it is important to go back to first principles. A mainstream media company invests enormous resources in reportage and news- gathering, fact-checking and editing, and production.
The news and views which are generated after due editorial diligence inform readers about the world around them, set the agenda for policymakers, and shape discourse and narratives — central to the functioning of a democracy. Big tech media companies, such as Google or Facebook, then use this content (produced by others) on their platforms. Advertisers then, based on the dominance of tech firms over the online space, shift their ad expenditure away from traditional media companies towards these firms. And so the work is put in by mainstream media companies, expenditure is incurred by them, but the profits are largely monopolized by the tech firms, leaving the original content producers struggling for survival.
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This model is economically unsustainable. Full disclosure — this newspaper has suffered, along with other Indian publishers, due to the predatory practices of tech firms. But the issue goes beyond the specifics of one company, for the very task of producing good journalism is being rendered economically difficult due to the revenue model at play. This model is ethically flawed — should a distributor of content, by sheer power of access to users, whose private data is mined, often through dubious means, profit off work done by producers of the content? This model is also politically dangerous — in a democracy, accurate information and civilized debate are essential to hold power accountable, and this requires good journalism. It is not a coincidence that there is proliferation of fake news when those who produce accurate news are getting weaker.
Australia’s decision to take on big tech firms and adopt a principled stand on the issue is welcome. And so is Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi — where, according to the Australian readout, Mr. Morrison spoke of the progress in the media-related legislation. Democracies must work together to hold big tech firms accountable and preserve the basic building blocks of open, informed societies. India must follow suit.