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Global News and Perspectives

Internet Monopolies: A Tale of Control and Censorship

It is a pretty safe bet to assume that most of us reading this use social media in some form or the other. We all fall within the social media spectrum marked by ‘influencer’ on one end and ‘lurker’ on the other. We also know that in a very short span of time, tech giants such as Facebook and Google have gained immense control across the globe, practically sharing the social media monopoly between the two companies.

Questions then are:

Do they have enough power to affect policy and governance? Has the global dependence on social media placed them in a unique position to dictate terms with governments, even coerce them into action? What happens when social media Goliaths and news media Davids collide? Also, can two capitalist profit making firms have that amount of power and control?

What does this mean for us? Some answers may lie in what the Australia story.

What is happening in Australia?

On 25 February 2021, Australia voted to legalise a bill called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code. This code mandates the social media giants to pay media houses for the content that is posted/ shared via Facebook or Google. It follows typical publishing logic where we pay royalty for content that does not belong to us. The government’s idea was to help especially the smaller news providers who are almost solely dependent on these platforms to gain traction. The code allows news providers to negotiate with the tech giants for payment deals. The social media platforms will also be legally obligated to inform these news providers any change in their algorithms that affect the visibility of their stories. This encourages smaller, local, struggling news organisations as opposed to those with an international presence like the Guardian or Reuters. With changing patterns of news consumption, the Australian government intervened to assist the smaller players.

Facebook and Google’s Response

Ever since this code was being discussed as a bill, Facebook and Google have been hypercritical. Like a “friend” of a struggling artist, they want to measure payments in terms of exposure. Social media gives these news websites visibility which allows them to monetise from their end users––the readers. For months before the bill was passed, they have been working tirelessly to stop the government from passing it. Google threatened to shut down all of its services in the country while Facebook went a step ahead and banned news content in the country, making the news pages unavailable.

Google’s stance has been clear. They want no legislative interference as it would break the “fundamental idea of the web”. However, it has announced the News Showcase programme through which news publishers will be paid regularly. It also implies that Google does not have to pay for every link of news article that it hosts. It pre-empts the code and pushes Google into a safer territory.

Facebook, on the other hand, has offered a counter proposal. They have displayed a willingness to invest up to $ 1 billion in partnerships with news houses in a span of three years. This eliminates the tech company’s obligation to pay for the news and also makes them an invested party that can direct the way news is produced and share profits.

The Final Result

Since the tech companies pushed the government into a corner by threatening to cut access, the government has amended the bill before passing it. Existing contributions of these companies to journalism will now be taken into account while deciding whether the code applies to them or not. Facebook’s “investment” is a means of getting around this code. Moreover, after the amendments, Facebook has agreed to restore the news pages that it had blocked.

A Global Purview

There is a reason why this Australia story is important. It is the same reason why Facebook and Google have responded so fiercely, creating a hostage situation. This code can trigger a similar set of legal changes in other countries. Many countries of the European Union and across the globe have expressed their support to assist smaller, local news production houses. The US Senate is already talking about it. Facebook’s move, at this juncture, appears like a call to war, promising retaliation in all those countries enacting a similar code.

Microsoft on the other hand sees this as an opportunity. It issued a statement committing its support to local news houses and has offered to fill the gap left by Google and Facebook should they carry out their threats.

Facebook’s decision to ban media pages has also sparked international outrage stating that the company is attempting to “bully democracy”. Julian Knight, the chair of the British parliament s digital, culture, media and sport committee, said, This action – this bullyboy action – that they ve undertaken in Australia will, I think, ignite a desire to go further among legislators around the world. The battle is now ‘a real test case’ for how tech giants should be regulated and asked to pay for content.” Tagged with the words irresponsible and bully, Facebook’s actions have given us a reason to reassess the power of social media and the monopoly this company has over the internet.

Are the Goliaths winning?

We know the story of David and Goliath. It is a story where David, the underdog wins. But is that story being rewritten here?

We have fallen in love with Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and others  because they provide us a public forum for the personal, giving us a tangible sense of connection to our societies and the world at large. By being part of a “newsfeed”, there is a chance to shine the spotlight on our stories, without actually having to be on the news. From slowly inching its way into our lives, it has become bigger than all of us.

But, to shut down something of public importance nation-wide is a tactical mistake. It puts on the table issues of censorship and control. History, as they say, is written by victors. In 2019, quite ironically, Facebook agreed to pay some publishers for their content. With the amount of power that Facebook has over the online space, it looks like they get to control how stories are written and which story gets visibility. The unequal power dynamic between the social media site and the smaller news websites stand testament to this fact. On March 16, 2021, Facebook has agreed to pay News Corp. Australia (an international news agency that began in the US) for their local articles.

Smaller news publishers are stuck in a catch-22 scenario where they cannot monetise without visibility and they need to be financially afloat to even be visible. Facebook’s decision to circumvent the Australian code and to block news pages has created a mess which will get messier until the needs of the many are put above the needs of one capitalist organisation. It is created a kind of stale mate wherein Facebook’s power in gatekeeping public consumption remains unchecked.

However, let us not create a one-sided version of events. There is a possibility that, left unchecked, this code could potentially cost millions of dollars to be borne by the tech giants, with no control over where the money goes. It opens itself to questions of who gets paid and how much. Is the money truly going towards journalism or getting lost in the circus? These are questions that need to be asked and answered. But holding internet space hostage is probably not the right way to go. We will have to wait and see how this story progresses in the rest of the world.

Date added
08.04.2021

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Global News and Perspectives

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