These developments raise questions about the overall importance and relevance of reforms focused on transferring revenue between platforms and publishers. Of course, millions of dollars changing hands between platforms and news media outlets is a major story. It is no wonder that the code has generated significant international attention, both from the media and other regulatory agencies. However, other regulatory work emerging from the ACCC’s wider digital platforms inquiry may better target some of the longstanding issues in the news media space.
Old media, new problems
As noted earlier, while lots of policy activity emerged from the inquiry, the code was simply the first reform to be implemented – and one of the more contentious. In addition to introducing the code, the ACCC has completed a review of the state of competition across the online advertising market.
The online advertising inquiry targets one of the longstanding areas of dependence for the news media sector. Many news organizations rely on digital advertising for revenue flow. Google owns products across this supply chain and in some areas has established market dominance. This means that in many cases the news media end up relying on Google products for revenue. The ACCC review sits alongside regulatory inquiries conducted in the UK and the US, which are also looking at Google’s dominance in this sector. Any further regulatory activity, through attempts either to diversify the market or place barriers between Google’s various advertising products, should produce positive outcomes for the news media sector, such as greater transparency and improved competition.
Large news media organizations are not waiting for these inquiries to lead to reform. Instead, they are working to reduce their exposure to platforms by building subscription revenue streams and rolling out their own advertising platforms. The latter involves an intensification of data collection efforts to be able to sell audiences to advertisers. These market developments could see news media organizations align with platforms on policy activities. For example, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner is in the process of reviewing Australia’s outdated privacy laws. Strategic activity across the news sector may well clash with any reforms to privacy legislation that the Australian government may choose to pursue.
Another major platform-oriented reform during this period also presents a possible regulatory threat for the news sector. DIGI, the not-for-profit industry association for digital platforms in Australia, developed and introduced a code of practice for disinformation and misinformation. While platforms were the original targets of the misinformation and disinformation code, there are discussions about potentially including news media in a revised code. While freedom of expression will still be protected, editors and journalists may be concerned about being included.
The implementation of the NMBC marked the first time that a country managed to break the deadlock between news publishers and digital platforms and secure platform revenue for the news media sector. That being said, it is unclear whether these reforms translate into meaningful public-interest outcomes. In addition, the reform has overshadowed a significant amount of adjacent reform activity occurring in Australia. It may be too simplistic to focus on the code, which places platforms on one side and news media on the other. Recent developments in the news media sector suggest that both sides may start to share concerns about other policy areas as they continue to invest in data and personalization and struggle with how best to handle the problem of misinformation.