Yet another weighty report in yet another country – this time it is the Cairncross Review in the United Kingdom – has called out Google and Facebook.
The review, tasked with finding ways to keep British journalism financially viable, makes the point that is both correct and well-understood by experts – internet’s giant global companies are in the process of slowly, or maybe not so slowly, killing independent local journalism, by driving away advertising revenue from the producer of credible content to the owner of the platform that aggregates content.
But what experts and stakeholders in the news media understand very well is often not understood by the internet’s users. A typical response goes like this – what is the big deal if I read a TOI news story or commentary via Google search, I am still reading TOI content.
It is a big deal because when Google is aggregating content through its news service, it is taking the cream of digital advertising, but it’s not paying a dime to create that content.
Now think about this: if this keeps happening indefinitely, news media companies that invest in talent and technology to produce content will be essentially spending money so that Google and Facebook can make money.
That is absurd and, if you value a free media, dangerous. Here’s the thing, though – this dangerous absurdity goes on everywhere and most governments in democracies seem loath to do anything about it.
This is especially true in India, the world’s largest democracy with a vast potential for rapid growth in readership and viewership of news.
India, as we all know, is exhilaratingly and intimidatingly complex. Understanding India, as credible Indian media outlets try to do, does not come cheap.
But in the near future, how viable will the economics of news production be if readers and viewers consume news mainly via Google’s and Facebook’s aggregations and algorithms and the two Silicon Valley companies make tons more money at the cost of those who are actually creating the content?
But none of India’s major political parties seems too bothered by this.
Democratic politics without a financially viable, independent local media is almost a contradiction in terms. Our politicians, however, seem to get upset with global internet companies and social media platforms only on issues relating to fake news and election campaigns.
For sure, fake news and Facebook-style violations of data privacy during election campaigns are big issues. But the issue of how to keep producers of real, verified, credible news from getting swamped by Google’s and Facebook’s business practices is arguably an even bigger issue.
Think about this: If independent journalism keeps becoming financially unviable, fake news merchants and data manipulators will have a free run.
India, therefore, needs to seriously consider policy responses to Google’s and Facebook’s model of distributing news. Some proposals are floating around, including those made in the Cairncross Review.
A European Union proposal will empower publishers with the right to ask for more money from web platforms. The British report talks of setting up a powerful regulator to oversee commercial relationships between internet behemoths and news publishers. France has actually imposed a levy on big tech companies from this year.
India needn’t necessarily take these or other solutions on board. We can think of our own solutions.
But, first, we need to start thinking. And when we do that, our policy makers should know they have to be ready for fierce responses from internet’s giants. Google has threatened to withdraw its news service from EU if the latter imposes the rule that publishers have the right to ask for more money.
The good thing is that there are two recent examples of Indian policy makers smartly regulating aspects of internet business.
First, India repulsed the attack on net neutrality rejecting, among other arguments, Facebook’s Free Basics campaign. Second, a commission established to propose data localisation delivered a report on the basis of which a new law is being drafted.
There is also, however, a recent example of how not to regulate internet business. The changes in e-commerce rules that took effect from February 1 are perfect examples of bad policy making.
Those rules were abrupt, they micromanaged business decisions best left to businesses, and they raised a very profound question as to why exactly the government was in a hurry to do this when so many other, more important regulatory issues are being postponed because elections are on us.
India must review Silicon Valley companies’ impact on the news business, and it must do it right. Let’s put it this way – our politicians should remember Google won’t hire reporters to cover their campaign speeches.
So, some sincere concern for those who actually hire reporters is entirely in order.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.