The Australian recently government found itself the unlikely harbinger of a global trajectory toward more interventionist models of platform regulation with its enactment of the Australian News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code (NMBC) in 2021.
The NMBC aims to support public interest journalism by ostensibly compelling digital platforms to bargain with news media organisations for remuneration for news content posted online.
The Australian Federal Treasury completed the first review of the NMBC in 2022 and hailed the legislation a success. In a lot of ways, it was. There were 34 deals made amounting to more than AU$200 million across the media sector, which represents about 61 per cent of the market being covered by at least one deal.
But is the Code fair or sustainable? More importantly, is the legislation replicable?
I was part of a research team that examined policy documents and interviewed news media executives about their experience of negotiating with the platforms, with some findings published recently in Policy & Internet.
Our research resonates with global responses to the ‘regulatory turn’ in platform governance, showing both the issues with the more interventionist models of regulation, and the lengths platforms will go to avoid them.
A year after the introduction of the Code, we found the legislation was not always successful in meeting its publicly stated purposes; supporting public interest journalism.
We showed that several issues remain unaddressed in the Australian legislation, including: lack of designation forcing platforms to continue to comply with the legislation, registration criteria for news outlets prioritizing legacy media organisations over equally worthy independent news providers, and the most importantly, the unintended extension of platform power into defining which media organisations constitute public interest journalism and should therefore benefit from the legislation.
Commercial confidence provisions in the legislation means news organizations and platforms are not required to report how much money they received, how they invested it, nor whether that investment aligned with the NMBC’s aim of supporting public interest journalism.
This impact was compounded by a second issue — the removal of “designation” in the code. That meant that regardless of whether a news organization was eligible under the code, there was no requirement that a platform negotiate with the organization.
Platforms simply refused to negotiate with organizations they deemed ineligible as public-interest journalism, and simultaneously remunerated organizations they had a commercial interest in supporting.
Our research showed that platforms were pushed for deals that aligned with their business priorities. This impacted the kinds of journalism being invested in, and reliance on particular forms of funding to pay for it.
Some of our interviewees claimed platforms were pushing media organizations toward existing grant-based funding, or toward specific types of content desired by the platform, to avoid negotiating individual deals under the code.
Learning from the Australian experience, the Canadian government attempted to enforce compliance with the introduction of their own Code in 2023. But this led to both Google and Meta announcing they would block Canadian news content from their platforms. While Google eventually acquiesced to a lesser payment, Meta have continued the ban, leaving Canadians in news limbo.
We argue these approaches were enacted for the same aim across jurisdictions; to assert control the negotiation process and avoid further regulatory imposition in their business practices by governments in any jurisdiction.
Note: the above draws on the author’s work published in Policy & Internet.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Policy & Internet, nor the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.