April 27, 2021

In a number of countries around the world, the government authorities responsible for regulating competition are taking an increasingly active role in regulating big tech, in part because they want to support journalism. So said ministers from six nations who convened for a recent online webinar hosted at SIPA.

The April 15 program was sponsored by SIPA’s Technology, Media and Communications (TMaC) specialization along with the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. TMaC director Anya Schiffrin and McGill’s Taylor Owen moderated the session; Dean Merit E. Janow gave introductory remarks.

Supporting journalism has come to seem more urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has decimated media outlets around the world even as audiences have soared. 

While much of  the discussion about using competition law to regulate big tech is focused on competition and search and the effects on business, panelists at the recent webinar discussed whether and how competition law can and should be used to support independent, quality journalism and whether countries around the world will copy the controversial Australian News Media Bargaining Code. That rule, which came into force early in 2021, now requires Google and Facebook to pay for news.

The competition officials all said they recognize the urgency of helping support journalism but that competition law is only one part of what has to be done. 

Rod Sims, chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, is the architect of his country’s new code. Responding to criticism that the law will benefit large outlets owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who dominates market share in Australia, Sims said that

“Under the code you will largely benefit in proportion to your contribution to journalism now, that is you get paid roughly in proportion to the number of journalists you have, so it's therefore quite true that the larger companies will get more money than the smaller companies. That's because the objective is to allow a proper commercial deal for content that's now being produced.” But he added that the Code is only one part of a suite of measures to support journalism.

In 2020, for example, Australia’s government gave 107 regional broadcasters and publishers $50 million of extra support, and philanthropists saved Newswire Australian Associated Press (AAP) from going under because they know that wire services are a source of quality information used by a range of outlets.

Canada has already pledged to follow Australia’s example. Owen Ripley of Canadian Heritage said discussions with stakeholders are underway and focused on “a made-in-Canada approach.”

“Our institutions and contexts are different,” Ripley said. “The Competition Bureau in Canada doesn't have exactly the same kind of mandate that the ACCC has in the Australian context.”

Canada has already taken many other measures to help support independent journalism including a C$595 million tax subsidy program.

The other ministers—who are known for being keen to regulate big tech—said they are closely watching Australia’s example. But it became clear that each country has its own ideas about how to regulate big tech and provide funding to  publishers.

Andreas Mundt, president of Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, said his country is now enacting legislation as required by the European Copyright Directive, which will likely to help publishers. In France, there have been long standing battles over copyright but news outlets are now able to negotiate with Google.

France is already implementing national legislation as required by the European directive. But Isabelle de Silva, president of the French Competition Authority, emphasized that “This new directive and this new law are not designed as a support to the press. Of course it comes in a context where the press desperately needs to have sufficient funds to finance journalism.”

Because of Brexit, the European directive will not apply to the UK, said Andrea Coscelli, the chief executive of the that nations’s Competition and Markets Authority. But the British government is still planning to set up a new regulatory unit and preparing legislation for this.

“There should be an enforceable code of conduct, that would regulate the relationship between these platforms [like Google and Facebook] with strategic market status,” Coscelli said.

Because Google and Facebook are so powerful, suggested South Africa competition commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele, it is hard for one country to act on its own. He pointed out the need for international coordination and suggested that UNCTAD or the OECD should lead discussions.

“We have sponsored a discussion within the African continent itself,” Bonakele said. “We need to rethink how Africans look at digital markets because it's going to be very difficult for any African country alone to tackle these matters.”

The webinar was the culmination of a series of aimed at launching the report Saving Journalism: A Vision for the Post-Covid World. Sponsored by the Konrad Adeanuer Foundation’s U.S. office and published in January 2021, the report was written by Anya Schiffrin with help from several students in her fall course on Global Media: Léa Allirajah, Hannah Clifford, and Allynn McInerney. Kylie Tumiatti wrote the section about Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code.

Another webinar in the series, co-sponsored with Rhodes University, examined how the Australian News Media Code and other solutions can be applied in the southern African context.

— Anya Schiffrin

Should Other Countries Copy Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code?