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Lifting the layers of Australia's News Media Bargaining Code

Aayush Soni, Communications Lead, Koan Advisory Group, suggests that the NMBC, as it stands today, gives an unfair advantage to news media outlets over digital platforms and should be amended

Aayush Soni

As expected, Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code (NMBC), which aims to correct the imbalance of bargaining power between media organisations and digital platforms, has generated a heated debate. In a nutshell, the Code makes it mandatory for platforms like Facebook to pay news media companies for publishing their content. Once passed, it won support from some of the most influential news outlets, including The Guardian and The Daily Mail.

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On the other hand, the Code came under severe criticism from media commentators and smaller news organisations. Jeff Jarvis, the noted technology blogger and academic, wrote that it would “ruin the internet for the rest of us”. In India, columnists have largely welcomed the developments in Australia on the grounds that they would put a check on the unbridled influence of digital platform.

Now that the noisy and polarised debate has quietened down, it is worth examining some of the Code’s lesser-reported aspects. First, it is worth noting that its provisions are not applicable to every news media organisation or platform. News organisations have to first be registered with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) for which they need to meet certain criteria. These include annual revenue in excess of $150,000 for the most recent year, content that focuses on “core news”, governed by professional journalistic standards and one that serves Australian audiences. The Code will apply to digital platforms only on the orders of a designated authority. But who will define what is “core news” and what isn’t? Also, digital news publishing isn’t bound by the constraints of geography or time. So even if Australia’s news organisations publish content meant for their citizens, anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world will be able to read it.

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Second, the NMBC buckets aggregators, social media platforms and search engines together, each of which perform a different role online. Aggregators, as the name suggests, collect news stories from different sources and present them to their readers. On social media, individual users post links to stories they read and search engines throw up results based on specific queries. To club them all together reflects a one-size-fits-all approach to policymaking, which is bound to be unworkable.

Lastly, the NMBC requires platforms to be more transparent about business practices that will impact news content. It mandates this if a  “change is likely to have a significant effect on the referral traffic from the designated digital platform service to the covered news content of registered news businesses (considered as a whole) that the service makes available”. This will have a significant impact on the larger product development ecosystem because platforms run the risk of sharing sensitive business practices with their competitors. It’s a bit like asking Apple to go public about changes it will make to future models of the iPhone – information which can be advantageous to a OnePlus or a Samsung.

It is nobody’s case that technology giants should be allowed to do as they please on the worldwide web. They do need to be regulated and held accountable for their actions. Else, they may end up compromising a country’s democratic foundations. However, such a regulatory mechanism cannot come at the cost of the worldwide web itself. The NMBC, as it stands today, gives an unfair advantage to news media outlets over digital platforms and should be amended. Otherwise, to quote Tim Berners Lee, “it “could make the web unworkable around the world”.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of BestMediaInfo.com and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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