Thursday 10 December 2020

 Google and Facebook paying media companies

In The Age newspaper, December 10, was an article about why Google and Facebook need to be charged by the Australian media companies in order to keep media reporting alive ("The world may follow our lead on digital news", Peter Lewis). While I am sympathetic to their plight, I regard the arguments as fundamentally flawed. I wrote a letter to the The Age saying this, but it was not published. Now that's fair enough, I only get about a 20% success rate in letters to the editor. But I have noticed that The Age often likes to publish pairs of letters, one for and one against any particular topic. Alas, today's paper only had only one letter presenting only one side, agreeing with the article.

With the Web and the rise of search engines, many business models have irrevocably changed. We work in different ways, purchase in different ways, and get information in different ways. This inevitably means that some styles of business will suffer while others will blossom. In all the media forms this has resulted in a shift of advertising money from the traditional media to the web companies. So does that mean money should be diverted back to support the media companies? Following through: should coal miners be subsidised because people are shifting to solar? Should Coursera and a host of online education companies be required to pay schools and unis for decreasing enrolments? Should Kogan and other online retail agents be required to subsidise the shopping malls with falling tenancies? It's not a strong argument!

I still get most of my news through the paper copy, or online when the paper isn't delivered. I'm a subscriber and go directly to the newspaper's web site. When I want to find out something I don't know, I go to a search engine. That may be for more titillating news about the mad US President, but is just as likely to be for reviews of, say, vacuum cleaners, or where I can buy a new lawnmower, or does a word exist that I want to put in the crossword. The search engines don't care what my query is, they just point me to sites with hopefully relevant content. Should the search results be treated differently just because they refer to "news"?

What the search engines give me are links to other web sites. True, Google vectors them through its own site for tracking purposes but that is a different issue. The site doesn't have copies of the articles, just a headline and a link. That is very different to actually showing copies - that would be breaking copyright and rightfully punishable. When I am looking for lawnmowers, the search engines give me a link to Bunnings, and when I want a review they often point me to the Choice website. Again, why should "news" be treated differently?

Searching for up-to-date news on the US President, I often get links to US media companies. When I follow through, I'm often met with a subscriber paywall. That is totally valid: you want to see something that has cost money to produce, then you can be expected to pay for it. I also read news online from the New Daily website ( Their site is littered with adverts. Again, a valid model. It is also supported by superannuation funds as are many companies by many organisations.

I run my own web site and put my professional work there: research papers, books, links to this blog and so on. Every now and then someone comes to my site through a search engine. Google doesn't pay me for my content, and I don't pay Google for indexing it. It's win-win for both of us. I didn't know about sites like until the media started making a fuss about it, but that also looks like a win-win: Google sifts and categorises the news and presents links to follow through.

It is true that income to the media companies is suffering and the quality of news may fall as a result. It may be that subsidies of some kind are appropriate. The questions should be about who should be subsidising who, not just a blanket decision to target Google and Facebook. The New Daily is an example of one way. Murdoch's News Corp subsidies to the loss-making Foxtel are another. Let's have that conversation rather than a flawed piece of legislation.