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Home / Opinion / Views /  Online platforms should pay for content creation

An assumption often made in business is that the rewards of value generation are apportioned fairly to all those who generate it. That this is not always so is glaringly obvious in the global arena of news communication, which has come to display an astonishing asymmetry in media reach and thus pricing power. While the industry of news-gathering and fact-validation remains both costly and highly fragmented (and also competitive), internet platforms like Google and Facebook monopolize delivery mechanisms. The latter’s hold over eyeballs has got them rolling in advertising revenues by the billion, even as news publishers fend off starvation. Australian lawmakers were among the first to wake up to the threat posed by Big Tech’s impact on what citizens get to know. Now, a US Senate panel report, released on Tuesday, has called for arming America’s Federal Trade Commission with the authority to shield news media organizations from what looks like a tech rampage. It proposes a market-sharing model based on the broadcast industry’s proven formula, by which cable and satellite-TV operators pay channels for their stuff. For the sake of trustworthy news, this is eminently sensible.

The panel’s report, put out by Democratic party senators even as US Big Tech firms face Congressional scrutiny for other alleged abuses of their clout, accuses Facebook and Google of “hijacking" America’s local news industry by scraping the content produced by others—without paying for it—to make enormous profits. Facebook has flatly denied this charge as “simply not true", while Google has argued that the report “distorts the reality around Google’s role in the online news ecosystem" and overlooks the extra reach it grants publishers. Observers who label protesters of an online shift as Luddites may be inclined to agree. It has been fashionable to see news fed by apps as an inevitable aspect of modern life. But let us not get carried away by consumer convenience. Turning out high-quality news is not just vital to a well-informed democracy, it soaks up investment and costs operational money. Copyright law exists as an incentive for the creation of valuable content, and tech platforms violate its spirit by treating news as a free resource. If they do not do so in letter, it is only because this law needs to be updated to the internet era in most jurisdictions.

When Google’s Sundar Pichai recently said that the company would set aside $1 billion to pay for others’ content over three years, it arguably amounted to an admission that its creation deserved compensation. That sum, though, is a pittance when viewed against the search engine’s revenues. On current trends, the intake of Facebook and Google will dwarf the global newspaper industry, placed at $140 billion in 2019, within a few short years. As their dominance grows, Australia and France have begun pushing them to share what they rake in with traditional media houses. The US seems likelier to throw its weight behind the idea if Democrats win a Senate majority, though its broader effort to clamp down on Big Tech in general and social media in particular has bipartisan support. Across the world, it is time for regulatory action. This is not a question of the old versus the new, really, but one of intellectual property protection. The logic that applies to product patents must apply here, too. If the world needs a variety of voices for democracy to work its wonders of human empowerment, then lopsided power must not be allowed to squash those invested in a public mission for truth to prevail.

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