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Monday, 30 September 2019 19:00

Digital platforms inquiry: govt hints it may go easy on tech giants Featured

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Digital platforms inquiry: govt hints it may go easy on tech giants Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has given a hint as to how the Coalition Government would react to the digital platforms inquiry report which was handed over to it by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in July, claiming during a recent speech that the loss of revenue suffered by traditional media due to the dominance of digital technology firms like Google and Facebook may not be as bad as suggested.

In a speech to agency and media executives, reported by The Australian, Fletcher used advertising data released last week as the basis for saying: "(The data) tells some quite interesting stories, because there’s a conventional wisdom about the media and communications sector, which is that the new digital platforms are dominating; the traditional Australian businesses in the media sector dying."

And, he added: “Of course, negative stories always get a good run … and some of those perspectives are very much what’s reflected in the recent ACCC digital platforms review. What I think is interesting from the … data is that the story is a bit more nuanced than that.”

His statements appear to have alarmed the folk at News Corporation, the company that has been the most aggressive in pushing for measures to curb digital technology firms which have grabbed the lion's share of revenue from online advertising and decimated the newspaper industry.

The company's executive chairman, Michael Miller, was sufficiently aroused to pen an op-ed on Monday, in which he went straight for the jugular. "We should be clear from the outset: no one has damaged journalism and Australians’ ability to receive trusted, reliable information more than the big tech platforms," was Miller's opening salvo.

"Their extraordinary profits are based on their unfair commercial exploitation of other people’s content – and powerful legislative changes are needed to correct this imbalance."

But on the other side of the newspaper industry, there has been little outcry since the report was released and the government said it would give its reaction by the end of the year.

The former Fairfax Media, now owned by Nine Entertainment, has a commercial deal going with Google and thus has been somewhat reticent to speak up about the way in which the search behemoth has eaten the lunch of many media companies.

Indeed, one of the former Fairfax properties, the Australian Financial Review, recently accepted a junket from Google and provided Google chief executive Sundar Pichai with the chance to float his views about the recommendations made by ACCC chief Rod Sims in the inquiry report.

In one article, Pichai was quoted as pledging "to work with media companies to drive 'sustainable growth' for journalism, arguing that government intervention and regulation were not required." This is not the first time Pichai has made such promises.

Author Max Mason added: "Mr Pichai is opposed to the Australian competition regulator's proposal for a code of conduct to govern the tech giant's commercial dealings with media companies."

And in a second piece, Pichai was given carte blanche to wax voluble on how he feels responsible for the "problematic" content that has been found on YouTube for many years. (Two more puff pieces have now surfaced; Google is certainly getting its money's worth.)

Given this split in the Australian media industry in its attitude towards a company that is known for dissembling when it is under pressure from the authorities, it remains to be seen whether the government thinks it has anything to lose by going easy on the tech giants.

As this writer has pointed out, Scott Morrison's government is unlikely to do anything that would annoy the Trump administration - and both Google and Facebook will get enough backing there if they were perceived as being under pressure from an outsider, in this case the Australian Government.

Even though Sims' recommendations are not as harsh as warranted, it seems very likely that they will be watered down to keep the American companies happy. Unless, of course, the local media bigwigs get their act together and present a united front to the folk in Canberra as they did when there were raids by the federal police on the ABC and a News Limited reporter.

But again, with the ABC saying in its submission to the inquiry that it sees Google and Facebook as allies, there may not be much support coming from the public broadcaster.

The whole exercise may end up being a case of another report by the ACCC being left to rot on some hard drive within the watchdog's premises.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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