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Australia: News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code

Volume 810: debated on Thursday 25 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the proposed legislation in Australia for a news media and digital platforms mandatory bargaining code, and (2) the case for similar such legislation in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the UK Government are committed to supporting the sustainability of trusted journalism. We have announced plans to introduce a new code of conduct to cover the relationship between dominant online platforms and the different groups of users that depend on them, including news publishers. We are engaging with the Australian Government to develop our understanding of the progress that they are making and are closely monitoring the reaction from both publishers and platforms.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. Given the proportion of people who now receive most or all their news through social media, do the Government believe that public interest news publishers should have fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory access to strategically significant online platforms for news production and distribution? Given the actions of Facebook in recent days, how can that be secured for the future in the United Kingdom?

The right reverend Prelate makes an important point. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has been clear in his concerns about Australian news being removed by Facebook. The importance of authoritative news services has also been clear, particularly during the pandemic, with the huge part that they play. As I mentioned in my Answer, we are planning to create a digital markets unit, which will ensure fair competition both for publishers and more widely for other sectors. We remain committed to ensuring that everyone can access authoritative information easily and freely.

Given the lack of transparency that typifies the working practices of social media companies, would the Minister confirm that the Government are working closely with their European neighbours and the new Biden Administration in developing a robust international legislative approach sufficient to bring these vast and seemingly unaccountable empires within the legal supervision of sovereign nations? If so, could she share with us the progress made to date?

I am unable to share the detail of the progress made to date, but I can reassure the noble Lord that the Government are using every opportunity for international dialogue with both our European neighbours and others. This morning, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State met with his counterpart in Australia and he also recently met his counterpart in Canada. We are working in the most collaborative way possible.

My Lords, the Australian approach risks legislating in a way that will create its own unintended outcomes. Content and copyright for news publishers is just one part of the problem and can be solved. Market dominance in access to data and in digital advertising is a much bigger issue. We have had many reports urging legislation and action: Cairncross, Furman, the digital task force and now Penrose. Why are the Government dragging their heels in bringing forward legislation to tackle it effectively?

The Government are not dragging their heels, but, as the noble Lord explained very eloquently, there are a lot of interlocking issues here that our new digital markets unit will seek to address.

I congratulate the Lord Speaker on his declaration of independence and his remarkable ability to tweet from the Woolsack. I refer to my entries in the register of Members’ interests. Three schemes in the UK currently support local journalism, run by the BBC, Facebook and Google. Would my noble friend the Minister consider creating a forum for publishers and platforms, including, for example, Microsoft, to meet on a regular basis to try to co-ordinate these different activities and give proper, sustained financial support to local newspapers?

I am very happy to take my noble friend’s suggestion back to colleagues in the department, but I know that we are in regular discussion with all the groups he mentioned.

I welcome the Australian Government’s action in creating a mechanism to distribute the value of news media more fairly. I hope that, when we do similarly, we will be able to ensure that it benefits the entire news ecosystem, not only parts of it. Deeply worrying was the spectre of the Australian Government revising their domestic legislation as a result of a series of phone calls with Mark Zuckerberg. Of course we need to hear the views of all stakeholders but, given that Facebook is clearly using its monopoly power and is willing to resort to bullying tactics to revise the domestic legislation of a sovereign state, does the Minister agree that, during the period in which we are working democratically on a number of regulatory fronts, including the online safety Bill, competition law and malicious communication offences, all interaction between Facebook and the Government should be on the record in committee hearings and other public arenas so that it cannot undermine the transparent, democratic legislative process that we all pride ourselves on?

The Government believe that social media companies must be held to account for the consistent and transparent enforcement of their terms and conditions for those using their sites. That includes online safety, to which the noble Baroness referred, but also protecting people’s freedom of speech. We are establishing a regime through the online safety Bill and the digital markets unit that will do this transparently.

My Lords, events in Australia highlight the right and importance of Governments acting to ensure that online platforms recognise the value of reliable news content. Would the Minister outline for the House the principles that will inform the Government’s approach to regulatory legislation as set out in the upcoming online safety Bill, and spell out what measures are being considered to outlaw online disinformation campaigns—fake news—and how this will be balanced with the need to protect free speech exemptions for journalists and writers?

I fear I might be growled at by colleagues in the House if I answer the noble Lord’s question in full, so I will write to him with more detail on the online safety Bill. However, as he is aware, it will focus on user-generated content, platforms that allow user interaction, and search engines. More broadly on competition, the regime will lead to an enforceable code of conduct that will stimulate competition and innovation.

My Lords, the Minister has referred several times to the CMA’s digital markets unit as one of the weapons that will be at our disposal, but the CMA has called for new statutory powers for that unit. Will she commit to those statutory powers being included in the online harms Bill, which has just been referred to, as new powers for the digital markets unit?

The statutory powers for the digital markets unit specifically relate to the code of conduct and how it will apply to platforms that have strategic market status. If I have understood the noble Lord’s questions correctly, those are separate from the online harms Bill, but those powers will be put on a statutory basis.

My Lords, there is a widespread feeling in the community that these large companies are so powerful that an individual country such as our own will not be able to stand up to them. I refer back to the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on international co-operation to deal with them. Is that a properly co-ordinated process? Can she also confirm, since most of these companies are American-owned, whether this issue has arisen in any trade discussions with the United States of America?

The noble Lord is right that these are global companies and some international co-ordination will be required to have the maximum impact. We are very much working with partners, as I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. We are also aware that other countries around the globe and the major platforms are looking at the work we are doing. We are leading in our ambition in this field.