Australia's news media code reaches parliament with minor tweaks expected

The Morrison government will introduce minor amendments to the news media code this week as the landmark legislation that would require Google and Facebook to negotiate with news outlets for payment is finally debated in parliament.

The technical changes are not seen as significant by supporters of the legislation, as the core intent of supporting Australian public interest journalism remains intact.

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said she would push for amendments to ensure that money earned by media companies through the code was invested in journalism, and not handed out as profits to shareholders.

“It’s good news that with the threat of legislation hanging over their heads, Google have begun to make fair deals with media companies,” she told Guardian Australia.

“This shows that the code is necessary to bring big tech companies to the bargaining table, and it must be passed.

“The purpose of the code is to protect public interest journalism in Australia.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said the legislation would be a “precursor” to more commercial deals between Google, and “ideally” Facebook, and news organisations.

“A central feature of the code is that it encourages parties to undertake commercial negotiations outside the code,” communications minister Paul Fletcher and Frydenberg said in a joint statement.

“It is encouraging to see recent reports that news media businesses and digital platforms are now reaching commercial agreements, against the backdrop of the code being introduced into parliament on 9 December 2020 and receiving the backing of the Senate economics legislation committee.”

On Monday Seven West Media signed a $30m a year deal with Google to showcase its content and other media companies are expected to follow. A number of smaller media outfits have already made a deal with Google, including The Conversation and Crikey.

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Google declined to comment on the amendments but said it now has 46 news organisations, including Seven, signed up to its Google News Showcase product which it has argued should be part of the code.

After initially threatening to pull search from Australia, Google has softened its stance and has indicated it may be willing to pay media companies similar amounts via Showcase licensing deals to avoid setting the precedent of paying for content displayed in search.

The tech platform continues to negotiate separate deals under News Showcase with the remaining media companies, including News Corp Australia, Nine Entertainment, Australian Community Media and Guardian Australia.

While a Senate committee last week endorsed the legislation without pushing for any amendments, the government has since made a few “clarifications and technical amendments” they say improve the “workability” of the code while retaining its overall effect.

The director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology Peter Lewis said the amendments kept the integrity of the media code intact.

“What is critical is that the code provides a systemic response to the monopoly power of Google and Facebook by recognising the value of public interest news journalism,” Lewis said.

“The fact that both Google and Facebook are securing significant deals with Australian news outlets shows the code is working before it has even become law.”

The director of government affairs for Google, Lucinda Longcroft, said last week the code should apply to Showcase, which is already paying publishers around the world.

“We look forward to engaging with policymakers through the parliamentary process to address our concerns and achieve a code that works for everyone – publishers, digital platforms, and Australian businesses and users,” she said.



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