I write this out of ardent love for Australian journalism and in the hope of facilitating its survival by shrieking into the void like a Shakespearean witch. You will not like what I have to say.
We are on the brink of a Dark Ages. This is one of those moments when the palace guards lay down their arms and surrender to an aggressor that has kept the kingdom under siege for years. Year zero. Life after Google…
The internet is an abstract to the law. Politicians want to control it, while its increasing commercialisation has made the whole thing a breeding ground for corporate jealousy where global markets both out-compete and sustain Australian business.
There have been many battles during social media’s swift evolution from niche to an oligopoly with Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter et al. boasting more money than nation states. They are civilisation’s new gatekeepers of information and communication – usurping the role of traditional news media. Many in the press would like to believe that this was a hostile takeover, but in reality they were out-competed.
The slow death of legacy news is a terminal illness of its own making. Self-censorship began a relationship of distrust with their audience who got tired of reading “mental illness” in place of “terrorism” or scrolling through lopsided articles, copied and pasted between publications. With #fakenews trending and quality falling, it was only natural that consumers opted for speed, logging onto Twitter for a clearer picture, livestreamed without the burden of an untrustworthy editor hacking it to bits.
As a business model, news is about reach. Information is the lure used to reel in consumers and either convert them to a subscription or sell them off to third party advertisers. You are the product. Due to the general laziness of humans, social media’s constant aggregation of work and play has left them with an emotional hold over all the eyeballs.
Culture is parasitic. News is created by the world – pilfered and packaged by journalists – and published by news outlets that act as glorified billboards for advertisers who want to sell things to the same consumers who created the news. Occasionally this ecosystem is hijacked by politicians who treat the press as their personal campaign team, but more or less, nothing has changed in the last few hundred years except the platform.
Starting a Copyright Cold War in this situation is a bad idea. The press say Google uses their work for free, but that is not true – Google has kept media on life support by funnelling billions of customers to their articles. Besides, do the media intend to pay for information they nick off social media? Do they really want online companies to start keeping track and charging for their services? Glass houses. Stones.
Vastly overestimating their control over the internet, the ACCC lodged the Exposure Draft for a Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) at the behest of Australia’s media industry. Josh Frydenberg cited its intention to correct an imbalance of power, desiring a sustainable media landscape”. Considering the government funds Australia’s largest news competitor – the ABC – forgive me if I find the concern over free market power imbalances slightly hypocritical.
Threatening to devour a sizeable percentage of Google’s billions will have consequences. Tech giants aren’t stupid, they know other countries will start ransacking the vaults if Australia is successful. News media is erecting their billboards on highways built and owned by Google. They decide whether traffic flows past a website – not the government. Trying to control them is like politely asking North Korea to give up their nukes. Why would they?
Posting passive-aggressive notifications on your Google search is only the beginning. If the government digs their heels in, Google can fuss with search rankings or switch the lights off like Wikipedia did in the EU, throwing the Federal government into hot water over a battle they never understood to begin with. Frydenberg will tap out the moment Australians turn their anger on him, leaving news media in the dark.
The correct fight to pick with social media is over its shady treatment of private consumer data – limiting what they can collect and who they sell it to. If you want to scare Facebook, threaten to define them as a publisher.
Ten years ago, TV studios decided to get pedantic about copyright. It left their profits in ruins. Social media sites were attracting advertising revenue and they wanted a share. Studios made the original content, so no one else should be able to use it for free. CEOs failed to realise that the noise created by happy users playing on these free platforms added to their revenue by acting as a valuable social marketing service. Attacking them offended their customers and the same will happen when media goes after the internet.
The art of the deal means understanding your bargaining position. Heaven forbid your opponent discovers how easily you can be replaced. Google can turn around tomorrow and launch a dedicated news empire. Don’t think it’ll happen?
We’re almost finished. These are simply the blades at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
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