Tuesday, 23 February 2021
Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021; Second Reading
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.
I also rise to commend the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021 to the Senate. I just want to talk very briefly about some parts of the bill that have not necessarily garnished as much focus as other parts. I mean, we have heard a lot about the Facebook news ban and the fact that people couldn't find information, not only from the Bureau of Meteorology and a number of other sites that one would argue are not news sites but also from the sites that were wiped in the unilateral move by Facebook in its attempt to have us reject this bill. I am very pleased that we have not flinched and we have not stood down from our resolve to actually implement regulations. Essentially, that's what it comes down to: at the end of the day, this is not about big tech paying big media; this is about big tech paying news media organisations so they can pay their journalists. It is only fair that people are paid for their work. These news sites are populated by articles written by journalists: individuals who deserve a salary and due recognition for the work that they do.
We've heard that Google has entered into agreements with some of the larger media organisations, such as News Corp and Guardian. I commend Google for taking that proactive approach before the regulation has been brought in. Very importantly, this bill also addresses smaller news media organisations, enabling them to be remunerated for their content. This code provides for digital platforms to publish what will be known as 'standard offers' on their websites. A small independent news organisation that's registered through the Australian Communications and Media Authority can then seek to participate in that standard offer, which will save a fortune in both time and money by them not having to go through the negotiation, mediation and, potentially, arbitration, of negotiating an individual agreement with the big tech companies. Some of these smaller organisations are also members of larger groups. You might have several newspapers operating in semi-independent structures that belong to a single group, like the McPherson Media Group, based out of Shepparton in regional Victoria, which is also the owner of several semi-independent newspapers under that banner. They can come together and collectively negotiate their own agreement under this code, which is a really important aspect of the code. There is also Country Press Australia, an organisation which brings together 81 members and 160 regional newspapers. They represent the rights of those regional, rural newspapers that service small communities like mine and that provide a foundation for those communities. Under this code, Country Press Australia, on behalf of all their members, can negotiate an agreement with the big tech firms that can apply to all of their members. That is a really important factor that I don't think has had enough attention in today's debate.
This is not just about big business. As I said at the outset, it is about journalists getting remuneration through this code but it's also about communities being able to access their choice of news through these digital platforms. For these reasons I commend this bill to the chamber.
Firstly I would like to thank those senators that have contributed to this debate. This bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021, establishes a world-first mandatory code to address the bargaining power imbalance that exists between digital platforms and Australian news media businesses.
Consumers are now obtaining more and more news online while, at the same time, digital platforms are thriving with their advertising revenues growing in leaps and bounds. In these circumstances it is unacceptable that digital platforms continue to earn revenue from news content created by Australian news media businesses without fairly remunerating them. The ACCC found that this situation arises because of an imbalance of bargaining power between digital platforms and local news businesses. The code addresses this problem in a fair and flexible way. It is a key part of the government's strategy to ensure that Australians continue to enjoy the benefits of digital technology while at the same time protecting key elements of Australian society, such as a strong, sustainable and independent Australian news media. The code will be reviewed by Treasury one year after its operation, to ensure that it is delivering on its outcomes and that the outcomes are consistent with the government's policy intent.
I thank the Senate Economics Legislation Committee for its consideration of this bill and welcome the finding that it will help safeguard public interest journalism in Australia. I note the additional comments from Labor senators and, in particular, their view that the government's work on the code has improved the responsiveness of digital platforms to the news media businesses.
I also want to address the additional comments from the Australian Greens in the Senate economics committee report and the additional recommendations that they put forward. The government does not support the Greens' recommendations. The Morrison government is a strong supporter of public interest news and, in June 2020, announced that 107 regional publishers and broadcasters would receive a share of $50 million in funding as part of the Public Interest News Gathering program, the PING. Of the 107 eligible applicants, 92 are regional publishers, 13 are regional radio broadcasters and five are regional television broadcasters, the majority of which operate as small to medium businesses. I can further advise the Senate—and this goes directly to Senator Pratt's amendment to the second reading motion, which the government will also be opposing—that in September 2020 the minister for communications announced that $5 million of funding would be provided to AAP Newswire to enable them to continue to offer their services to more than 250 regional mastheads that are serving local communities.
Senator McKim's amendment goes to the collection of data. I note that, on 12 December 2019, the Attorney-General announced that the government would conduct a review of the Privacy Act 1988 to ensure that privacy settings empower consumers, protect their data and best serve the Australian economy. The review was announced as part of the government's response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's Digital Platforms Inquiry. The issues raised by Senator McKim should be addressed in the context of that review rather than this legislation.
Similarly, the Senate is currently conducting an inquiry into the concentration of news media in Australia—the subject of Senator Waters's amendment. The government does not support the contention in Senator Waters's amendment, and those issues should be addressed in the committee context rather than in the context of this bill's second reading debate.
With regard to Senator Hanson-Young's amendment to the motion on the ABC, the government does not support that amendment, and I note that the ABC has more funding certainty than any other media company in Australia, and that is because taxpayers provide the ABC with over $1 billion in funding every year. I also note that the government has been very clear that any proceeds that the ABC receives from Google or from Facebook under the news media bargaining code are not going to be debited from, or lead to a reduction in, the funding that the government is otherwise providing to the ABC. I commend this bill to the Senate.
At the end of the motion, add: ", but the Senate:
(a) notes that on 8 December 2020, Minister for Communications, the Honourable Paul Fletcher MP, stated that the 'commitment from the ABC is about funding they receive under the Code, should they receive remuneration under the Code, that that would go to regional journalism…there's no intention on our part to in some way offset that'; and
(b) calls on the Government to guarantee that revenue collected by the ABC through deals done under the Code will not be offset by any reduction in government funding".
I move the Greens amendment on sheet 1213:
At the end of the motion, add: ", but the Senate:
(a) notes that:
(i) billionaire Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation controls much of the Australian media,
(ii) billionaire Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook controls much of Australia's online activity, and
(iii) both big corporations pay little to no tax in Australia; and
(b) is of the opinion that implementing a media code is not the best way of addressing the growing power of the billionaires and the big corporations; and
(c) calls on the Government to deal with the growing concentration of media and online ownership by implementing new tax measures, funding public interest journalism and increasing media divers
At the end of the motion, add: ", but the Senate is of the opinion that:
(a) Australians should have more control over how companies collect data about them online, who has access to that data, and how, and for what purposes, that data is used;
(b) concerns over privacy, and the use of personal data for commercial gain, can no longer be ignored by the Government; and
(c) the Government must implement, as a matter of priority, protections equivalent to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation".