The public is hungry for free online news. That appetite endangers the existence of news organizations that produce it and democracies that nurture them.

Big dogs harnessed but not muzzled.

Big dogs representing Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Google are shown harnessed but not muzzled. (Illustration by News Decoder)

This article, by university student Mark Holder, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Mark is a student at Indiana University, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your secondary school or university.

In 2021, newspaper publishing revenue within the United States was down 30% from a decade prior. In Canada in 2022, broadcast television revenue dropped more than 18% from the same period a decade earlier. Yet revenue for internet providers doubled in about the same time.

Because most people get their news online, many fear that digital technology companies are directly threatening the very existence of news outlets, through various controls they exert over how people get information and what information they get.

This imbalance has been an international problem that democratic nations around the world have been struggling to address.

Australia took the first step in February 2021, passing the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code. Canada enacted the Online News Act in June 2023. These laws forced selected outlets like Google and Meta to pay for any news website links that were posted on their sites or apps.

In July 2022, the European Union signed and adopted a significantly different approach in the Digital Services Act package which established a new group of regulators in contrast to the other nations’ bills that empowered pre-existing agencies.

Resisting regulation

Tension rippled throughout Australia before the legislation had even passed. Meta protested by shutting down its Facebook platform.

It was an extreme reaction that demonstrated the power Meta and other large digital companies have. Consider that the five most visited websites in the world are owned by just two corporations: Google and Meta. Moreover, in 2023 Google controlled 92% of the global search engine market.

Worldwide, the news industry is in crisis. Some 40% of people trust their news. That perhaps explains the proportionate decline in global news interest. In the United States public trust in the news media fell 54% overall in the two decades prior to 2022.

Add to that concerns over mass censorship committed by social media outlets during the Covid-19 pandemic and the intrusive data collection tactics used by big technology companies like Google.

This battle between governments and the tech oligarchy has turned out to be much more complicated than many had hoped.

How much control can governments exert?

Initially, Australia presented the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code. This law forced selected digital intermediaries like Google and Meta to pay for any Australian news website links that were posted on their sites or apps. But before the legislation had even passed, Meta protested by shutting down its platform Facebook throughout Australia.

After a two-week stalemate, intermediaries of Meta and Google agreed to compensate Australian news outlets $200 million. Although the bill passed, no digital intermediary has yet been designated for regulation by the Australian Treasurer.

Following this, the Canadian parliament passed its own legislation, the Online News Act. Similar to Australia’s legislation, Canada’s new bill awarded power to a pre-existing agency, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Its purpose, as explained in its Charter Statement, was to help news businesses get fairly compensated by introducing a bargaining framework applicable to news intermediaries that hold a significant bargaining power imbalance over news outlets.

In an 11-page response to the proposed legislation, Google said that the power imbalance was a “flawed premise” that would always weigh against them. It also considered the exemption provisions to be “vague and broad.” While inclusion would depend on criteria such as the size of the digital news intermediary and whether it occupied a prominent market position, it did not quantify size or prominent market position, Google argued.

Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, testifying at a hearing of Canada’s Heritage Committee, said: “Asking a social media company in 2023 to subsidize news publishers for content that isn’t that important to our users is like asking email providers to pay the postal service because people don’t send letters anymore.”

Meta says government moves will muzzle speech.

In August 2023, Meta fully removed Canadian news outlets’ content from its platforms within Canadian borders and Google threatened to follow suit. What was originally intended to aid the news media ecosystems had completely undercut the local and independent publishers.

“At a time when we’d normally be growing as quickly as possible, we’ve completely retreated,” posted Jeff Elgie, owner of local news startup Village Media in Ontario, Canada, on his X account. He referred to the C-18 bill as, “poison for business.”

Google argued that people must be able to freely find and share links to news content online. Free expression, access to information, press freedom and an informed citizenry depend on that, it said.

But Google never fully abandoned negotiations and as of November 2023, it agreed to pay CAD $100 million annually, or about USD $75 million to Canadian news outlets.

In July 2022, the European Union signed and adopted a significantly different approach in the Digital Services Act (DSA) package. The DSA tasks investigative and enforcement to Digital Service Coordinators to be appointed by each member state no later than 14 February 2024.

This archetype offers a clean slate, something that other governmental regulations do not. Along with this, the bill specifies the size of a company that will fall under the legislation: those with average monthly active EU users at or above 45 million.

Searching for a solution

Largely, the DSA contrasts other nations’ laws in both agency structure as well as bill content. In response, entities such as Google and Meta have publicly been more open to the regulation and have been cooperating in its application.

With this knowledge, and the threat of digital monopolies still looming, the United States presented its own battle plan.

In May 2023, Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Lindsey Graham introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would empower a newly formed federal commission. The commission would have investigative, enforcement and rule-making authority while cooperating with the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.

The bill, aimed at all of “Big Tech,” is dubbed the Digital Consumer Protection Commission Act of 2023. Similar to the EU’s DSA, the U.S. act provides specific values for inclusion based upon annual revenue or monthly active users both within the United States and globally.

It requires qualifying digital platforms to be licensed, or be immediately shut down and barred from legal operation. This power alone would allow the commission to implement the act’s reforms aimed at company transparency, fair competition, user privacy and national security.

Why have governments resisted regulation?

Failure to regulate tech companies till now in the United States reflects a friendly attitude towards business in general, said Julien Mailland, an assistant professor of telecommunications at Indiana University who has studied and written about Internet policy.

“Lack of regulation is a problem, but I think the lack of regulation in general is linked to the ideological bent toward not regulating corporations,” Mailland said.

Even if the United States could overcome the negative public perception of regulation, Mailland worries about the formation of a new agency that might lack the necessary experience in such a new area of governance.

Mailland pointed to Europe’s privacy regulators established through a data protection law it passed in 2018. “The good thing about these agencies is that they have a history of knowing what they’re doing,” Mailland said.

Can news sites flourish in a digital world?

This history teaches valuable lessons that an experienced commission could build on to enforce the legislation effectively from the start and avoid the initial troubles new agencies often experience.

Outside of this, the United States and the EU specified their inclusion standards; something the Canadian and Australian bills did not. Mailland believed this to be a necessity as subjective laws can be dangerous. “There needs to be objective criteria or else it’s the rule of the arbitrary,” Mailland said.

The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, will hear multiple cases in 2024 regarding the constitutional rights of social media outlets that could affect how the law is applied.

The cases will establish whether online forums are “public spaces.” If they are established as such, user posts will be completely protected from censorship. If not, then social media outlets will be allowed to continue self-governance.

Regardless of the outcomes, we likely haven’t seen an end to attempts to regulate the digital oligopoly which currently controls the most powerful space ever introduced to man: the digital world.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why do some democratic governments feel they need to control big digital companies like Google and Meta?
  2. What are some of the challenges of regulating social media and search engine providers?
  3. If you were to write a law regulating digital content, what one thing would you include?
Mark Holder

Mark Holder is a junior at Indiana University in the United States pursuing a degree in media and plans to continue his education in law school. Mark enjoys reading and researching topics in an array of fields such as policy, technology, history and more. 

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School PartnersIndiana UniversityCan the world harness big tech without muzzling free speech?