Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of the Public Interest News Foundation, United Kingdom; Michael Markovitz is Head of the GIBS Media Leadership Think Tank, Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), South Africa; and Anya Schiffrin is Senior Lecturer of Practice at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York.
How can journalists and campaigners stand up to the power of Google, Facebook and the other big tech companies that dominate the world’s information ecosystem? How can we build a viable future for high-quality journalism whilst social media platforms and search engines gobble up the world’s advertising budgets?
In 2021, when Australia sought to answer those questions by introducing a code to govern the interactions between Big Tech and news publishers, the platforms retaliated. Facebook blocked its Australian users from accessing thousands of news sites – including vital sources of public information during rampant wildfires and the Covid pandemic. They only turned the news back on when they won major concessions from the Australian government.
Since then, governments around the world have proposed their own versions of the News Media Bargaining Code, some echoing Australia’s by trying to fix the imbalanced market relationships between publishers and platforms and others with loftier goals of regulating the digital marketplace in its entirety. Canada has just passed a law similar to Australia’s and so has the lower house of the California legislature. In the UK, legislation is currently making its way through parliament.
If we get these laws wrong, we could harm the public sphere even further, stifling innovation and diversity in the news. If we get them right, we can help to usher in a new era of thriving news outlets giving voice to all corners of our societies.
Journalists and campaigners from around the world came together this month in Johannesburg to debate how to make these new laws more transparent, more democratic and more geared towards the public interest – rather than the private interests of big tech or big media.
We have developed a shared framework we call ‘Big Tech and Journalism: Principles for Fair Compensation’. These principles are the result of myriad conversations and consultations between practitioners and experts – journalists, activists and academics. The principles came out of conferences held in New York and California, London and Costa Rica and were formally approved on July 14 at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg, at the culmination of a groundbreaking conference on ‘Big Tech and Journalism: Building a Sustainable Future for the Global South. They are designed to apply anywhere that politicians are looking for a way through the maze of policy options.
The principles set out high-level objectives that specific policies should try to meet – objectives like plurality, diversity and supporting public interest journalism. For example, the principles state that policy mechanisms should not discriminate between large and small publishers, and that big tech firms can’t strike preferential arrangements with more politically powerful news organisations.
We need to ensure that, where news providers share their content via platforms, search engines or aggregators, the publishers get a fair share of the data and revenue that the platforms generate from their journalism. Otherwise, news publishers will be forced to accept potentially unfair terms from the platforms, or to remove their journalism from these platforms altogether, abandoning the public sphere to the purveyors of misinformation and disinformation.
If the world’s wealthiest countries are struggling to stand up to big tech, what is it like in the developing economies of the Global South? There are currently proposals to regulate the relationship between social media and news media in countries including Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa. But there are always risks that come with media regulation.
On one hand, the big tech companies will try to water down legislation they don’t like. On the other hand, autocratic governments will try to use legislation to control the media economy. We have to find a way between these two extremes.
Left to their own devices, big tech firms would rather ignore the pleas of news providers or do deals with a few powerful publishers without regard for the wider news economy. We need to stand up to the tech giants, not because we want to destroy them, but because we want to live in democratic societies which combine the best of old media – high-quality public interest journalism – with the best of new media – platforms on which people share information and ideas.
So, our principles also call on policymakers to ensure that regulators are politically independent, that deals between platforms and publishers are transparent, and that the regulatory system as a whole is accountable to the public.
No one is pretending that it’s easy to regulate big tech or support journalism. But it is necessary. And if we don’t say how we think it should be done, then we leave the field open to those with powerful vested interests.
Most journalists and campaigners in this field work for small companies, NGOs or academic institutions. We don’t have big legal or lobbying budgets, and we certainly don’t have a global infrastructure. Some of us even receive funding from big tech, which makes things awkward when we need to criticize them.
But we do have each other. So, if we can get behind these shared principles, we have a far greater chance of standing up for the public interest, and building a public sphere that works in the interests of all, not just a tiny group of powerful corporations.