News media bargaining code — what it means for everyday Aussies and Australian businesses

4 minute read | Last updated on 23 January 2021

On 20 April 2020, the Aussie government asked the ACCC to produce a code of conduct that equilibrates the bargaining power of Australian news businesses with that of Google and Facebook. The resulting Bill to amend existing legislation was introduced to the House of Reps on 9 December 2020. Google has threatened to remove its search services from Australia if the Bill is passed. And Facebook has vowed to ban publishers and individuals from sharing Australian news content. Here’s what we Aussies need to know about this fiasco.

What the news media bargaining code says

Legislation is always hard to read, so here’s what the Bill says in plain English.

Google and Facebook are required to negotiate with registered news organisations and come to an agreement about how much they’ll pay news organisations to distribute the news organisation’s content and make that content available to their users. They’re also required to notify those organisations if they make changes to their software that will affect the news organisation’s search or social media referral traffic. Plus they have to provide news organisations with information about the data they collect through news content.

Other digital platforms, in addition to Google and Facebook, can be added to the code if they begin to have too much bargaining power over Australian news organisations.

What does ‘make content available’ mean?

The legislation defines this as linking to content, reproducing content, or providing extracts of content.

What does ‘distribute content’ mean?

The legislation says that ranking and curating content are examples of distributing content. Making content more or less prominent, and making users more or less likely to interact with content, are also listed as examples.

The purpose of the news media bargaining code legislation

The stated purpose for the legislation is to support Australian news organisations by giving them more bargaining power with big digital platforms that’re holding them over a barrel.

It’s also been claimed that when headlines and short extracts of news content are made available separate from the rest of the content, Australians can become misinformed and may then spread misinformation. And they may not view the full piece of content, so the publisher loses revenue.

Issues with the news media bargaining code legislation

I see several issues with the legislation for everyday Australians and Aussie business owners.

Firstly, how is it fair that news organisations will get advance warning of search algorithm changes when other businesses, community organisations and bloggers don’t get the same warning? Surely, that gives registered news organisations an unfair competitive advantage over other content publishers — something that the ACCC is meant to prevent from happening…

Secondly, surely this legislation is actually detrimental to our ability to access quality news. Google and Facebook aren’t going to pay to link to news articles or display short extracts of them (and why should they when this service drives traffic to the news content). So, many Australians will just end up seeing fewer pieces of quality Australian news and will instead be more exposed to extreme and less reputable views.

Thirdly, news publishers have complete control over the headlines and content extracts that are displayed on Facebook. All they have to do is include some open graph code in each piece of content and Facebook will show what they want people to see.

News publishers also have a reasonable level of control over the title and extract that get displayed in Google search results — the SEO title influences the title and the meta description influences the extract. Now, I say they have a reasonable level of control because Google doesn’t always use those pieces of code and does sometimes come up with its own versions if it thinks it can do a better job. But surely Google could just ensure its code honours the SEO title and meta descriptions of registered media organisations.

Plus, if people are being misled by news headlines, surely news organisations need to write headlines that are less misleading.

Fourthly, when Google and Facebook stop showing news content, news publishers are going to get less social referral and search traffic. So, not only will they not get increased revenue from implementation of the code, but they’ll get less traffic to boot.

Finally, I agree with those who’ve said this sets a dangerous precedent that could open the flood gates to people and businesses being forced to pay for links. The result could be that people stop linking to things which will make using the internet just that little more cumbersome for us as users, and more importantly, will probably result it more content creators publishing information without adequate referencing, which could further increase the dissemination of misinformation.

Issues with Google’s response to the news media bargaining code

Google claims it can’t just remove news for search results because the definitions in the code are too broad for them to be able to implement code changes to remove the required content. But the Bill states that news organisations will have to register, so surely Google can just noindex the domains of all registered organisations.

Impact of the news media bargaining code on Australians

If Google stops offering its search engine functionality in Australia, we’ll lose the services of the search engine that provides the most relevant search results. But there are plenty of other search engines we can use instead.

If we can’t share news on Facebook, some people will subscribe to news publishers, but many people will probably rely on less trustworthy sources of news. So again, we’ll have more misinformation.

If other businesses and scammers start charging for links, we’ll find it harder to find the information and solutions we look for on the internet.

The news media bargaining code TL;DR

The news media bargaining code will not give news organisations more bargaining power over digital platforms. It’ll just result in less search and social referral traffic for registered news organisations (and potentially all news organisations).

The code will not reduce misinformation. It’s more likely to increase it.

The code is not fair to content publishers who aren’t registered news organisations.

Let’s hope it gets amended!