OPINIONMediaJuly 8, 2024

The big tech bargaining bill is not about Google


An abrupt change from National renewed focus on the contentious relationship between big tech and the news media. One company should be exempt, writes Duncan Greive.

After months of appearing somewhere between agnostic and hostile to the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, which it inherited from Labour after winning the 2023 election, National shocked the news media by coming out in favour last week. The bill has been a saga for those in the news media, transfixing those on the business side, who have to pay journalists’ wages, while being somewhat mystifying to many who work in news media, let alone simply consume it.

Throughout its gestation, though, it’s been widely understood that the bill was mostly about two companies: Meta and Google. This is understandable. They’re the two companies that were targeted by Australia, and their domination of giant digital advertising markets for social media and search respectively means their success is most closely tied to the struggles of news media.

Both companies share some important characteristics. Each produces little content in its own right, and instead makes money from sorting and distributing the content of others. Sometimes news media, sometimes users, sometimes other organisations. The main thing is that the data gained by playing that role makes you extraordinarily well-placed to sell advertising. News has always been majority-funded by advertising, so the rise of the search and social pipes cuts deep into its main revenue stream.

That’s the theory behind the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill. It’s an attempt to push players in the digital ecosystem to strike deals to address this revenue imbalance and the loss of a social good in news. The change to allow ministerial designation of companies – ie, that media minister Paul Goldsmith will say which companies it applies to – in some ways acknowledges that this is a fluid and contested space. 

Since 2021, when Australia passed its law, we have seen the rise of TikTok and the explosion of generative AI. TikTok is full of discussion of news and culture and recordings of news output; generative AI draws a huge amount of its power from having been trained on vast volumes of journalism.

How does it work on the ground?

That’s the short version of the case for the bill. But what is far less well understood is the local context. Both Google and Facebook have relationships with local news organisations of relatively long standing. They started during an earlier era, when big tech was largely thought of as a positive enabler, and before the revenue changes had really started to bite news media. 

During that time we were very close. I and others in the local media flew up to conferences in Singapore and Thailand, stayed at nice hotels and met incredible people in news and technology – all funded by Facebook or Google. That progressed to the point where Facebook funded an accelerator programme in 2019 that gave us access to superb mentors, senior news figures with whom I’m still friendly to this day. Google had its own programmes, and sent down smart people to run workshops for our journalists. 

At the same time, their platforms were evolving. They wanted to keep users on them longer, and were more reluctant to send them to our sites, where we might meet and keep an audience member. Google started populating its “people also ask” fields with information from news stories, meaning zero-click searches became the largest share of Googling. Facebook started to emphasise shortform video over news stories, or even refuse to allow important news stories to be boosted at all

When Australia’s competition authority promoted the news bargaining bill, all hell broke loose, but before long both Google and Facebook signed deals with the major Australian news publishers. New Zealand eventually followed suit with a bill of our own, promoted by then media minister Willie Jackson and eventually picked up last week by his eventual successor in Goldsmith.

Paul Goldsmith (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Different paths

That’s where Google and Facebook diverge, though. Our relationship with Facebook effectively ended with one strained phone call when news broke of our desire to collectively bargain with the tech giants. We carried on to the end of a piece of audience work we were doing, but have only seldom spoken since.

It’s been different with Google. They participated in a long and robust negotiation, but one that eventually ended in a deal signed. We were among the last to get there, alongside Stuff, but joined a range of small and large newsrooms, including NZME, Newshub, RNZ, TVNZ, Newsroom, PMN and Whakaata Māori. That’s not the whole of the news media by any means – there are some notable absences, including NZ Geographic. 

Still, the deals cover a lot of people – north of 1,000 New Zealand journalists. The fate of Newshub shows you that the deals alone won’t save the industry. But while they’re confidential, speaking for The Spinoff I believe that they make a material and meaningful contribution to the sustainability of this organisation. During a period of deep economic uncertainty, with brands pulling back from advertising and audiences from memberships, our Google deal was a lifeline.

Our experience suggests that Google has made a significant contribution to the survival of journalism in this country. On that basis, it’s hard to see minister Goldsmith designating it – essentially, Google is the adult in the room, one that voluntarily made deals with a large number of New Zealand news organisations. 

All eyes are on Meta, which has shown no inclination to take a similar route. In Australia, it has signalled it will not renew any of the deals it signed in 2021, and the Albanese government is considering its options in response. 

Where they go, New Zealand will likely follow – not just with Meta, but with a number of other big tech companies, which use New Zealand news content, wrap products around it and sell advertising on that basis, but most of which have made no deals with local publishers. As of last week, the government started a clock on them either joining Google, or seeing what lies at the end of the other route.  

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