Big Tech and the Future of the News in the UK

In recent years, we have seen increasing hostility between traditional media companies and big tech companies. Where the latter are seeing huge profits and ever-increasing success, news publishers are concerned about their future when tech companies dominate online advertising, and are asking that big tech companies pay their share for the news stories they use.

When did the dispute come into the limelight?

There was controversy in Australia last year when Google threatened to remove its services following a new law that would force them to pay news publishers for using their content. Facebook also reacted strongly to this new law, removing its news content for users based in Australia.

The platforms argued that the law fundamentally misunderstood how the internet worked – with the free sharing of content a part of the experience for all users. However, news companies argued that they are no longer fairly compensated for articles and content that generates advertising revenue for Google and Facebook.

A compromise was ultimately reached where the tech giants did agree to strike deals with media companies in Australia in order to use their content, which has inspired similar ideas in countries around the world.

What are the rules being proposed in the UK?

Reports suggest that the UK government is drawing up new laws which will be similar to a system introduced in Australia which requires platforms, such as Google and Facebook, to negotiate payment deals with news organisations.

The platforms would be encouraged to negotiate deals with the organisations and, if the negotiations fail, an independent arbitrator would set a fair price.

This would be regulated by the Digital Markets Unit (DMU), which is a digital watchdog set up within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to monitor the position of tech platforms in the market. This body would also be the one to set a fair price in the case of negotiations failing. 

Should tech companies be paying for news content?

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has described the move as “pro-competition” and argues that it “supports the sustainability of the press”. They also stated that “the new regime will be an important vehicle to tackle the imbalance of power between the largest platforms and publishers.”

“The measures would give publishers greater transparency over the algorithms that drive traffic and revenue, more control over the presentation and branding of their content, as well as greater access to data on how users interact with their content.”

The move to put news publishers and tech companies on a more even footing seems reasonable when you take into account that Google and Facebook took almost four-fifths of the £14 billion spent on digital advertising in the UK in 2019, while national and local newspapers took less than four per cent.

However, some have argued that this is the wrong action to take and doesn’t take into account the complexity of the problem. Many news outlets actually benefit from having their content shared on social media platforms, for example, as this drives traffic to their sites and helps them reach a much larger audience.

Instead, it has been suggested that a better way to rectify this imbalance would be to either tax the tech giants more or introduce funding or subsidies to the news industry to give it a much-needed boost. 

Will the new laws work?

This system was ultimately introduced in Australia after the initial backlash from Google and Facebook, so there is a chance that something like this could work – although there is also a chance that further disputes will occur.

Facebook has argued that it is already doing its part in the UK, as they are “paying tens of millions of pounds to national and local outlets in the UK to be part of Facebook News, the dedicated tab for quality journalism”.

There are also concerns about the sheer volume of work that would be required for platforms to agree on commercial arrangements with every news publisher whose content would be shared on the platform.

It is likely that we will see more public disputes but, hopefully, a compromise will be reached so that people can still access high-quality journalism easily online, with all parties being supported.