Facebook will pay a hefty fee to mainstream news outlets in the United Kingdom (UK) to license their articles, according to a report in The Guardian. The social media company will create a dedicated news section, where paid contractors will select key news stories of the day from news media organisations. In return, the news organisations will get a dedicated fee. While the exact amount is not clear, a Facebook executive confirmed that it is an “extremely large investment”. The decision comes in the backdrop of the pressure on Facebook for its dominance of the online news market, and to support the finances of news publishers. It also comes soon after Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission issued a code of conduct to determine the compensation that online tech companies should pay to local publishers for content, and said that there was an “acute bargaining imbalance” between the two.
These are significant developments which have the potential to affect not just the manner in which news is produced, distributed and consumed but also the foundations of democratic societies which depend on informed and civil discourse. This newspaper has consistently argued that Facebook (and Google) have taken advantage of the cover of being intermediaries/platforms to escape the ethical responsibility and legal and financial obligations that come with being a publisher. This has allowed the proliferation of fake news and the amplification of hate speech. It has also resulted in a blow to the media ecosystem. Mainstream news outlets invest in news gathering, editorial vetting, and publication of accurate stories — but global tech companies pick these stories, use it to increase their reach, and then use this reach to almost monopolise digital revenues. The mismatch between who invests and who profits is not just a commercial matter between companies — but threatens to undermine the system that enables democratic discourse.
India must have a stronger regime that brings companies such as Facebook and Google under a regulatory framework and treats them for what they are — media companies. These companies must recognise that the days of leveraging free content and pushing out fake news is coming to an end — it is not just an act of irresponsibility but has now generated substantial backlash to erode their own brand legitimacy.