Of late, the Australian government struck out at Facebook and Google, two of the biggest global technology giants. The national government underlined how the tech majors stand in a position where they can abuse their market power, and suggest that they take such actions in order to stifle revenue that should rightfully belong to the ones using their platform. The case in point are news publications, and the revenue commissions that Google and Facebook take from them. It is, in a way, a classic chicken-and-egg case – do publications owe Google for providing a democratic, global platform that was non-existent without them? Or, does Google owe publications for creating content that makes them who they are? Irrespective of which side of the coin you are on, the regulation in Australia does set a very important precedent that Google, Facebook and the likes can follow worldwide.
Interestingly, a recent argument on The Economic Times has raised an all-important question amidst this chicken-and-egg encounter – if Australia can push for such a move, can India not do so too, therefore drawing more (and probably deserving) revenue to stricken publications across India? More importantly, should Google and Facebook not consider a uniform, universal revenue sharing model for all news publications, which have largely lost out on advertisement revenues to the global technology giants?
Time for Big Tech to be proactive?
Following the steps taken by the Australian government, reports state that the Canadian government is also considering the imposition of restrictions on revenue sharing between technology companies and news publications in the country. The European Union is also mulling over the imposition of extensive fees on technology giants, on this note. However, while these applications are being made from the government and administrative end of things, Google and Facebook should ideally focus on looking at a change of fundamental structure in the way they operate their news business.
The model in place right now is not quite sustainable. Facebook, for instance, has protested Australian regulation by banning content producers and publications from putting out content on its platform. In essence, this takes away one of the biggest features of the platform that attracts millions of users globally. Important to note here is that even though Facebook continues to claim that it is not a news-centric platform, sharing of information will inevitably remain a primary aspect of social media. Google, on the other hand, has begun tying up partnerships with news networks and publications, but the moves have been limited and exclusive.
Contrarian voices remain in the independent media space to this, which is testament to the might of big tech. Manan Vyas, founder of independent policy blog Qrius, tells News18 that contrary to the raised argument, he is in fact more than satisfied with how the internet works for the Indian news and content ecosystem right now. “The way I see it, Facebook and Google are the best sources of free traffic to publishers. So, there is no question of making them pay for traffic that they are sending to publishers. Without both of them, independent publishers will struggle. In today's time, most of my traffic comes from Google Search,” Vyas says.
However, there is a lack of rhythm to the way the businesses are working. For Facebook, while such a ban from their end may work as a one-off, if all nations go the same route, Facebook risks losing out far more revenue than it stands a chance to gain. The same applies for Google, whose Search and News properties are interlinked and responsible for a major chunk of its revenues. Given their might, publications cannot quite hope to compete with them, which is what necessitates them to have their due section of advertisement revenues. Denying publications around the world this is essentially making them pay a fee for using Google or Facebook to market their content on, and additionally take away potential advertisement revenue as well.
Can our government intervene?
Even if this appears to be the right way forward, there are hurdles in the way of a more formal push, such as government regulation. N.S. Nappinai, senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India and founder of Cyber Saathi, explains to News18 that the case is not quite as simple as India following a certain step just because something is being done by a fellow government. “The Indian government would make a move for regulating the revenue sharing model between traditional news publications and technology giants, only if it seems a public benefit use case for doing so. Our government was quite vocal when it came to establishing a digital tax on the revenues generated by big tech companies, so it would be wrong to say that they do not have any interest in regulating technology companies. However, there has to be a revenue aspect beyond the income tax angle, or something that would benefit the public, for the government to intervene,” says Nappinai.
What, then, about news publications who feel hard done by the revenue share they are compulsorily paying to companies such as Facebook and Google? Varun Singh Kalra, a New Delhi-based advocate who has worked on a paper understanding the policy aspect of the issue, tells News18, "From a legal perspective, the news agencies in India, in order to get a share of the revenue from social media giants, can take recourse of Copyright and Competition laws. The scope of the Copyright Law in India is very narrow, as 'news' per se is not copyrightable unless the news agency can prove putting in a substantial amount of labour, skill and capital in covering and presenting that story/news."
It is this that Nappinai highlights as the key reason why regulation on news partnerships may not be on the Indian government’s mind right now. Kalra agrees too, stating, "Advertisers have not completely shifted from newspapers to social media platforms, but it is only a matter of time when an amendment in these laws will be crucial for the survival of news agencies." It is, therefore, not a case of not having precedent – Nappinai highlights Section 31D of the Copyright Act, 1957, which establishes statutory licensing regulatory framework to guide broadcasters and publishers on copyright and revenue sharing.
The case, as she highlights, is largely a matter of when and at what point might the Indian government find Google and Facebook’s actions to be interfering of public discourse and a demerit towards homegrown industries of India. Until then, it would be premature to expect the Indian government to follow suit on an international trend. However, as per industry expectations, technology giants must act proactively before the situation turns into a stand-off for news, for platforms that have stood for democracy and free speech, and has to reach the regulatory stage across the world.