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Making big tech pay for the UK news they use 

Publication: Public Interest News Foundation

Hani Barghouthi, Campaigns Manager at the Public Interest News Foundation on the need for a global set of values when negotiating the relationship with big tech companies.

Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

The news can be a profitable business, but profits have been lining the wrong pockets. In the last couple of decades, a handful of dominant search engines and social media platforms have been allowed to expand, unimpeded and unchecked, and upend business models that publishers relied on to fund their work.  

In that same period, hundreds of independent and local publications like this one have been forced to downsize or shut down, leaving millions of UK residents like you without a trusted source of information about all aspects of their lives and livelihoods.  

As a result, crucial knowledge familiar reporters produce about local governments, businesses, public health, education, and even entertainment and recreation simply never reaches the people who need it the most.  

For the outlets that survive, and start-up publishers that try to break into markets that are notoriously difficult to enter, big tech platforms have become an unavoidable part of the business. These companies dictate how publishers present and share their news, how they reach their readers, and whether they are able to generate the revenue they so desperately need.  

Instead of holding power to account and remaining, as they should themselves be, accountable to their audiences, publishers are beholden to the whims of multibillionaires in Silicon Valley.  

Their tech conglomerates hoard a lion’s share of user data and ad revenue generated for them by readers, listeners and viewers in the UK, while the country’s publishers struggle to remain afloat. They are left to fend for themselves, waiting for support that has not yet materialised from the government and the tech companies.  

The good news is, legislative help may be on its way in the UK in the form of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which promises to (re)introduce competition to the country’s digital marketplace.  

But Parliament still has some work to do to deliver on that promise and the UK Government’s many commitments since 2019 to support sustainable journalism in the UK. And we’re working to help them do just that.  

At the Public Interest News Foundation, we believe everyone in the UK deserves to have access to public interest news that speaks to them, for them and with them. Through the News for All campaign, we have been collaborating with partners and stakeholders across the UK and internationally to influence policy that supports sustainable journalism in the public interest.  

Through our work with organisations in Europe, Africa, North and South America, Asia and Oceania, we’ve learned that journalists all over the world are facing similar hardships as a result of imbalanced market relationships with the same tech practices that are plaguing the UK’s digital market.  

It’s a global problem with endless local permutations.  

And we need a global set of values to guide our solutions. That’s why, last month, we joined more than 100 journalists, economists, free speech advocates and trade bodies to adopt ‘Big Tech and Journalism: Principles for Fair Compensation’.  

Governments around the world have considered different public policy mechanisms to address these unbalanced relationships between news publishers and the tech companies.  

It has been a bumpy ride: when a country tries to impose fair and reasonable trading terms on the platforms, the platforms invariably retaliate.  

We saw that in Australia, where Facebook blocked users from accessing thousands of news sites – including vital sources of public information during rampant wildfires and the Covid pandemic, only turning the news back on when they won major concessions from the Australian government. We’re now seeing identical tactics in Canada, which passed its Online News Act this year, where Meta has already turned off the news and Google has vowed to do the same.  

We don’t believe these actions, which we view as a direct attack on citizens’ rights, are sustainable for the platforms, and expect the news to return in Canada like it did in Australia. This will not happen without further attempts from them to gain concessions that dilute the essence of these frameworks.  

We believe that the answer to Big Tech’s attempts to strongarm nations is not to acquiesce, but make sure that we’re governing markets with clear values in mind. The principles call for policies that enshrine plurality, diversity, sustainability, fairness, collectivity, transparency, accountability and independence, and are outcomes-based in their design and delivery. 

Most importantly, they require legislation to be rooted, above all else, in the public interest.  

Since last year, we have been advocating with policymakers in the UK Government and both Houses of Parliament, directly and through a growing network of partners. We want to ensure that the proposed legislation adheres to those principles and can help those who need it the most: independent publishers who serve millions of citizens up and down the UK.  

For that to happen, small, independent providers must be allowed to band together to bargain collectively with the platforms, and to do so in a framework that does not offer the latter countless opportunities to obstruct its implementation. It should demand the highest levels of transparency from the involved parties and maintain a strict review process. It must protect British communities, not corporate bottom lines.   

The new legislation offers an unprecedented and sorely needed opportunity to mend a fundamentally broken digital sphere, returning market power to the hands of publishers and their audiences. If we get this wrong, the legislation could harm publishers and the public even further, stifling innovation and diversity in the news.  

Done correctly, it could empower publishers in all corners of the UK to help their audiences engage in the social, economic and democratic processes that impact their lives in very real ways. In short, it can allow them to help their readers feel like they belong to their communities.  

Help us call on policymakers to deliver legislation that will protect your interests by providing you with trusted, high-quality independent and local news. Email to get involved.