Josh TaylorFri, 12 February 2021, 7:42 am
The news media code that would require Google and Facebook to negotiate with news outlets for payment for content is set to be debated in parliament next week after a Senate committee endorsed the legislation without pushing for any amendments.
The Coalition-majority Senate committee report, tabled on Friday, noted “concerns raised by various submitters and witnesses” over the operation of the code, but ultimately found the legislation would “deliver on its intended outcomes”.
“Its provisions will provide the basis for a more equitable relationship between the media and Google/Facebook and, through this, help safeguard public interest journalism in Australia. Accordingly, the committee recommends that the bill be passed.”
In separate minority reports from Labor and the Greens, both raised concerns but ultimately supported the bill.
Labor called on the government to make clear how it would designate digital platforms. Under the legislation, a minister can designate how all or part of a digital platform’s services might be subject to the code, and thus would need to negotiate with media companies for payments.
The federal government has already excluded YouTube from the code at Google’s request, and negotiations have continued between Google and news media companies for those companies to receive payment to participate in Google’s News Showcase product, which launched in Australia last week with 25 mastheads.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has indicated the government may be open to compromise on how the code could be applied to Google should the company reach agreements with enough publishers before the legislation passes and comes into effect.
Nine, the parent company of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, has already said it will not participate in negotiations with Google for News Showcase until the code is brought in. A Nine spokesman on Friday called for the parliament to pass the legislation.
“Now is the time for action and for the media code to be legislated,” he said.
Labor senators on the committee have called on the federal government to “use precise language in public statements regarding what designations it intends to make under the code” so to make it clear how exactly the code would apply to Google and Facebook.
This would avoid potentially wider consequences, including for businesses in Australia, if Google withdrew its search product from Australia as has been threatened, or if Facebook stopped allowing Australian users to see or post links to news sites.
The Greens called for a requirement in the code for news media publishers to spend the revenue earned from the code on public interest journalism, and for the government to establish a permanent public interest news gathering trust, with funding support for AAP. The newswire service is not eligible under the code.
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said in a statement the legislation would be debated in parliament the week commencing 15 February, and the government expected negotiations between the platforms and news media companies to continue in the meantime.
“The government expects all parties to continue to work constructively towards reaching commercial agreements in the spirit of collaboration and good faith encouraged by the code,” they said.
“The code will be reviewed by Treasury one year after its operation to ensure it is delivering outcomes that are consistent with the government’s policy intent.”
A spokeswoman for Facebook said the company was reviewing the report.
“We hope the Australian government will agree on a workable solution that truly protects the long-term sustainability of the news industry,” she said.
Google’s director of public policy and government affairs for Australia and New Zealand, Lucinda Longcroft, said the company remained committed to a “workable” code with amendments proposed around arbitration and applying the code to News Showcase.
“We look forward to engaging with policymakers through the parliamentary process to address our concerns and achieve a Code that works for everyone – publishers, digital platforms, and Australian businesses and users,” she said in a statement.
Microsoft, the owner of Bing – Google’s nearest search rival – on Thursday night called for the Biden administration in the United States to adopt the Australian news media code, arguing Facebook and Google had lobbied the former Trump administration to object to it.
Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, said in the blog post that although Bing accounts for less than 5% of the Australian search engine market, the company believes its offer to fill the gap left by Google if the company pulled out of Australia ultimately resulted in Google backing down.
“Within 24 hours, Google was on the phone with the prime minister, saying they didn’t really want to leave the country after all. And the link on Google’s search page with its threat to leave? It disappeared overnight,” Smith said.
Google has indicated its search results pop-up was only supposed to appear for 24 hours, and the meeting with the prime minister was organised weeks in advance.
Google’s senior vice-president of global affairs, Kent Walker, said in a blog post that Microsoft was “eager to impose an unworkable levy on a rival and increase their market share.”
- Note: Guardian Australia has been in discussion with Google over inclusion in its new Showcase offering that would see the company pay news providers for inclusion in this product.