Senate debates

Tuesday, 23 February 2021


Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021; Second Reading

6:35 pm

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to continue my remarks on the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021. Before I had to give way to question time, I was reflecting that this bill hasn't come to us, as I was suggesting, fully formed from the head of Zeus but after almost three years of public consultation following extensive analysis by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC. What gives me comfort about the extent of the market intervention is, particularly, the paragraph as expressed by the minister responsible for the bill in the other place:

The Code creates a framework for parties to reach commercial agreements so that news media businesses are fairly remunerated for the content they generate—

which the digital platforms benefit from. That's the essence, or the driver, for the creation of this bill and, in essence, is the guiding light for the extent to which the government is seeking to intervene in the market. Intervention always carries some risk of unintended consequences, and that is why a review has been implemented.

I think I finished my comments with a quote from Clive James, and I'll say it again, 'The last stage of fitting the product to the market is fitting the market to the product.' It's very much an apt description, although I don't think he was saying it in this context of the large-scale tech companies. We have been here before: monopolistic practices have been around since ancient Rome, and, indeed, things like salt were traded under imperial mandates. The benefit of the monopoly is that infrastructure is built extremely fast at a low cost. The problem is that eventually you kill off innovation because there is no competition, and some historians suggest that it was effectively the fall of ancient Rome and the Reformation that brought to the European economy both competition and innovation.

Similarly, in the United States, particularly before and then after the American revolution, there were a number of large corporations that had to be granted exclusive contracts because there was a need for large-scale public works. So the benefit of the monopolies they created was that infrastructure was created at a reasonable pace, but of course, eventually, they had a large-scale debate across the country on whether they would break up the monopolies. This debate continues to this day, because we have before us a debate around the world about whether you regulate large tech, you intervene in the market or, in fact, you have a more extreme intervention with the breaking up of those companies—and I don't intend to express a view on that today; it's outside the scope of the bill. But we are joined by an international community of legislators who are grappling with the problem.

We are, rightly, endeavouring to keep the pricing of journalism appropriate in our economy from organisations that have global reach and to some extent have developed an attitude of being too big to care. They provide extremely valuable services, as we've seen with the decision of Facebook, which I understand has been reversed, which has prevented Australians from seeking information regarding essential services. But we need to reflect that they set the rules and they determine how their infrastructure is being used, and I think that we need to start to think about the internet and these large platforms as infrastructure.

We spend much of the time in this place discussing banks and their interaction with ordinary members of the community. A similar attitude needs to be taken by this parliament about the services that are provided—who sets the rules—not only in how they are accessed but how the infrastructure is being used. This has been alluded to by many other speakers in this debate—the potential threat to not only new business creation but also to democracy at large.

Philosophically, I often reflect that large tech tends to compete for a whole market, to effectively be the market, as opposed to competing within the market. Our legislative view of big tech needs to take into account that we cannot allow that sort of practice to drive ongoing behaviours where winners take all. We are elected here to care for and to show compassion for our community and to make sure they are looked after. The executives of large tech are not elected to care.

I would hope that the hope of every senator in this chamber would be that big tech would exercise social responsibility. Obviously that is still in question and, thus, we need to act. I would like to think this is the last market intervention, but I doubt it. We are on a road of continuous review and reform and we will often be guided by what happens overseas. I'm very interested in the French model, which has taken the approach of copyright. I'm hopeful, maybe aspirational, that this parliament will not avert its gaze from the operations of these platforms in the future. We all know how much the community relies on social media for communication—bushfires come to mind. Our youth were brought up on it, not like my generation, who had to learn it as we went through. I suppose the essence of this debate is very much about social licence. How much social licence are we expecting from these companies? How much social licence do they wish to take on board? And, where they fall short, to what extent are we going to have to intervene? They have incredible power and it does cause me great concern.

I come back to the surety I have in the one-year review, the rigour of the ACCC's analysis and also in our own internal parliamentary processes. I would like to think that, in a year's time, we can celebrate no further regulation. But the next big issue facing us, as has been alluded to by other members, is not only the amount of the tax they pay but also the privacy of the individual user. The individual should be free to interact with these organisations in an open and transparent way and not be an unwitting provider of corporate surveillance, which drives their profits. On that note, I commend the bill to the chamber.


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