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The Zuck stops here

- Glenda Daniels

It’s time to take on the tech giants to sustain media and journalism - you can use competition laws against the likes of Facebook.

This year, South African media houses, publishers and journalism bodies (hopefully civil society organisations in the media space and the government) will tackle the multinational tech giants that use content, and move readership to their sites, with no compensation to the authors or to local media.

Google, Facebook and Twitter take their sweet time to remove online hate, it seems, just to “gain traction”. The uglier, the more clicks – which plays into the dreadful numbers game. All in all, the biggest money spinners in the world (pandemic or no pandemic) have been the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google). And after two horrendous years for the media, 2022 is likely to offer respite if advocacy efforts aimed at engendering fair competition bear fruit.

The past year was dominated by the pandemic and combating misinformation, while the industry continued to suffer big job losses because of the digital economy, loss of advertising revenue and economic downturns in media companies, all exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Besides these structural difficulties, some nasty blows for journalism and media include Independent Newspapers’ horrible embarrassment following its fake decuplets story, which got worse when its owner, Iqbal Survé, linked the nonexistence of the 10 babies to child trafficking.

Then, in December 2021, there was political interference at the SABC after recent dry runs during the Ramaphosa era. Quite bizarrely, the ANC recently blamed the SABC for contributing to its local government election losses.

But back to the global picture. You can’t take sledgehammers to the ants, but you can use competition laws to stop the drain of local revenue to big techs laughing all the way to the bank. In a similar move to Australia, where the media were successful, the Publisher Support Services (PSS) in South Africa, supported by the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), is hauling Facebook and Google to the Competition Commission.

Presently, the action is being taken by Media24, Arena Holdings, Caxton, Independent Media and Mail & Guardian Media, but other media companies may come on board.

The chairperson of the PSS, M&G CEO Hoosain Karjieker, articulated the reason for the impending action:

“Globally, platforms like Google and Meta have been using publishers’ content at no cost to grow their market dominance. The objective was to get the giant multinationals to compensate South Africa media fairly and equitably for its journalistic efforts. Hence, we are making submissions on their behaviour in the local market to the Competition Commission’s market inquiry into online platforms in South Africa.”

Contributing to the pressure is Sanef’s latest research on the matter, titled “Fostering fair competition in the digital economy”, which was outsourced to ALT Advisory, a public-interest advisory and research firm. The aim was to lead research that assessed the feasibility of possible competition reform in South Africa, aimed at advancing the sustainability and independence of journalism and a fair relationship between news media and tech platforms in the digital economy. The results of this research should be released soon.

The issue of regulation is a tricky one. There has to be a balance between freedom of expression but without hate speech and cyber misogyny. This has to be tackled from a local contextual perspective.

But there is also a global overlap because other countries face the same issue. You need government support, but you cannot have states banging the internet and digital companies with a sledgehammer. There’s also a need for consciousness-raising about online hatred, trolling and emotional violence. For example, researchers worked on the online bullying of women journalists and asked the government what they were doing about it.

The government said women journalists should report it to the police. Women journalists said they do, but police were bemused: “But what is online violence?”

It’s really up to the media, with civil society, to take the lead on this. In South Africa, we are fortunate to have more than 20 media organisations, NPOs, NGOs, community-based organisations, academic associations and advocacy groups in the media space. All have different but overlapping interests.

Besides the PSS, they include Sanef, Gender Links, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, the Press Council South Africa, the Media Development and Diversity Agency, Freedom of Expression Institute, Save our SABC, Media Monitoring Africa, Media Institute of Southern Africa, the Association of Independent Publishers, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, National Press Club, Right2Know and amaBhungane.

In 2018 and 2019, countries started to think about the regulation and taxation of Facebook and Google. Internationally, many governments and NGOs, especially in the UK, US, Canada and Australia, have instituted commissions to investigate the impact of big techs on local news media. These inquiries are reaching similar conclusions: a new tax reform regime is necessary for tech giants Google and Facebook, who are now gobbling up journalism.

As countries look to each other, it’s now South Africa’s turn to tackle the tech giants. For example, Germany executes millions of euros in fines if hate speech is not taken down within 24 hours. Through this, countries can concentrate on the original mission of journalism: public service and public interest, to inform with facts, educate, comment and analyse – while making journalism sustainable.

Alliances with the government (for policy implementation and back-up), civil society and media houses can create huge pressure to tackle some FANGs and get the fair tax required to sustain local journalism.

Old profit models are dead. We need to start thinking about journalism as a public, not-for-profit good. It’s urgent to stop the money flow to those tech giants who are not paying taxes in their own countries or in ours.

Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at Wits University, sits on the executive of Sacomm, the Press Council and Sanef. This article was first published in Daily Maverick.