Memo to Meta: No one likes bullies (and they don’t win)

James Warburton

Warburton: Meta “is a corporate bully. What’s the best way to deal with bullies? Stand up to them. Don’t flinch. Don’t blink. Stare them down.”

By James Warburton, Managing Director and CEO Seven West Media

Meta’s announcement on 1 March that it will not renew any of the deals struck with Australian media companies for use of news content on its platforms proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is a corporate bully. What’s the best way to deal with bullies? Stand up to them. Don’t flinch. Don’t blink. Stare them down.

The Albanese Government needs to stand up to Meta, designate it and not waiver. Meta will fight back, hard. It will get very messy. But we are a sovereign nation that should not – and will not – be bullied by multinational tech behemoths.

Meta’s petulant, extreme but not totally unexpected decision underscores a significant shift in the digital landscape, highlighting the complex interplay between large tech corporations and the media industry. It also raises crucial questions about the balance of power, the sustainability of journalism and the role of government regulation in safeguarding a diverse and fair news ecosystem.

At the heart of this issue are concerns about Meta’s significant market power and its potential to undermine the financial viability of news organisations. By choosing not to renew the news deals, Meta is not only affecting the revenue streams of many media organisations but also impacting the public’s access to reliable and diverse news sources.

Meta’s decision reflects a broader challenge facing the news industry: how to sustain quality journalism in an era where digital platforms control significant portions of advertising revenue and audience reach. It earns billions of dollars in revenue from Australian advertisers and invest little to any of it back into trusted professional news and media content. Further, companies like Meta are taking most of the profits back overseas and not investing it back into the content from which they earn ad revenue.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) plays a pivotal role in this context, given its role in ensuring fair competition and preventing abuse of market power. The ACCC’s recognition of Meta and other digital platforms as gatekeepers to the Australian consumer market (making them unavoidable trading partners) underscores the need for regulatory oversight. It’s imperative for the regulators to scrutinise the actions of tech giants, ensuring they do not engage in practices that stifle competition or harm consumer interests.

The situation in Australia serves as a microcosm of a global challenge. Governments and regulatory bodies worldwide are grappling with similar issues and trying to create legal and economic frameworks that support a healthy news media landscape. This includes exploring ways to ensure that digital platforms contribute fairly to the news ecosystem, recognising the critical role of journalism in democracy and society.

The debate over Meta’s decision here also touches on the broader theme of misinformation and the importance of trusted news sources. In an era marked by concerns over fake news and information overload, the availability of verified and reliable news content is more important than ever. Digital platforms must take responsibility in supporting the news industry, not just for the sake of individual media outlets, but for the health of public discourse and democracy itself. Despite what Meta appears to believe, it is part of Australian corporate life and Australian society, with all the responsibilities that entails. It isn’t an island, or a law unto itself.

When the News Media Bargaining Code was introduced, it was lauded as a revolutionary new approach to competition and regulatory policy. But regulating monopolies and organisations with dominant market power is far from new: it’s been happening since the advent of the railway.

In Australia, we are comfortable and familiar in regulating monopolies. We regulate access to our energy infrastructure, telecommunications networks, have competition rules for gas markets, airports and seaports, and so on. Imagine if one of these regulated businesses didn’t like the rules and decided to simply not play. The regulators and Governments would come down on them like a tonne of bricks. Meta is no different. We should not look at regulating these large digital platforms as something new and novel, but just a matter of course on how we regulate businesses that dominate certain markets.

The regulation of monopolies and the enforcement of competition laws are crucial in maintaining market fairness and protecting consumer interests. The current situation with Meta and the news industry calls for a similar approach, albeit adapted for the digital age. Governments and regulatory bodies must work together to ensure that digital marketplaces operate transparently and fairly, supporting a diverse and sustainable news media landscape.

Meta’s bullying decision not to renew news content deals in Australia is a wake-up call for policymakers, regulators, and the media industry. It highlights the urgent need for a balanced approach that safeguards the interests of news organisations, promotes fair competition and ensures the public has access to a wide range of reliable news sources. No one likes bullies and no one wants them to win.

See Also: ‘No one can tell brands how they should react’: Will advertisers punish Meta for exiting news deals?

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