industry

View: Shouldn’t India’s news media be self-reliant, too?


Let’s start with two numbers. Around 80% of external traffic to various news websites is carried by Google and Facebook (FB), according to Parse.ly, a web analytics and content optimisation software. And a study says around 40% of trending queries on Google are related to news. So, news can make good money from online business, right? Wrong. Google and FB take away most of the revenue generated from digitally available news content.

Now, let’s look at the current news on this unfair practice in the digital news business. On making tech giants share revenue they make from news, Australia is batting like Rishabh Pant at the Gabba. India resembles a disinterested 12th man. Results are predictable.

In Australia, Google is now cutting deals with news publishers. And FB, which played tough by blanking out news from Australians, is facing withering criticism, the cost of which in terms of brand value loss may yet be severe.

In India, tech giants are in the same comfort zone as always. Proof of that is India doesn’t figure in any of the quasisolutions proposed by Google and FB on sharing revenue with publishers. All that is happening here is that tech giants, Google, in particular, are trying to cut ridiculously unfair deals with smaller content publishers.

Presumably, Google’s aim is to seal some agreements, which will offer very little money, with smaller players. They have been hit harder by Covid-19, and are financially more vulnerable. If these deals happen, Google may be successful in dividing the news industry, and then put pressure on big publishers to follow that template.

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This is in stark contrast to what’s happening in not just Australia, but France too, and what may happen in the EU and US. In France, Google signed copyright agreements with six French newspapers and magazines, including biggies Le Monde and Le Figaro. A similar outcome may happen in the wider EU. In the US, there’s growing support for a law that allows collective bargaining by the news industry to make tech giants pay for news content.


Who Moved My Cheese?


Even elsewhere, Google and FB are making a little effort. Last October, Google had announced it will start paying some publishers of ‘high quality’ content. Brazil and Australia were named as among countries where talks were to start. FB said last year it will pay some US publishers to incentivise ‘high quality’ content.

Of course, all of this put together still falls short of a proper revenue sharing agreement with those who spend money and train people to publish news and views that have gone through editorial due diligence. For example, in the Google-News Corp deal, the former will pay Rupert Murdoch’s company for placing some content on Google’s News Showcase product. Those stories will appear on ‘special sections’ in Google’s apps and search pages.

Google’s revenue-from-news business model, however, rests on aggregating news stories that appear after a user searches a topic in the usual fashion. That is not part of the deal. But at least in Australia and other countries, Google and even FB are appearing to make a start. There’s no such move in India. The single biggest difference between those countries and India: in the former, there’s increasing government, regulatory and legal pressure; in India, there’s none.

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Australia is working on details of a new law that mandates payment for news by tech giants. In France, the competition watchdog passed an interim order last year asking Google to negotiate with media firms. In the US, the chorus for paying for news has bipartisan support in the political class, and there are antitrust cases against Big Tech. South Africa and Spain have been among other countries to take or threaten action against these companies.

The absolute absence of any such pressure from GoI or Indian regulators is especially surprising because India hasn’t at all shied away from taking firm action against Big Tech on other fronts. GoI has imposed the equalisation levy on foreign-owned internet businesses, in line with OECD thinking. It has critiqued and demanded action from FB-owned WhatsApp over messages that have fomented law and order incidents. It has squarely taken on Twitter over the issue of suspending accounts that GoI deemed as problematic in the context of the Republic Day violence. WhatsApp was made to go through several hoops before its payments service got a clearance for a limited pilot use. Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart were asked to change their business models to better align with GoI rules on online marketplaces.

Each of these GoI actions — and there are more — faced pushback from Big Tech. But GoI held its ground. And, in most cases, it was Big Tech that adjusted. So, why is it that there’s no GoI pressure on tech giants on the hugely important issue of a financially viable domestic news media? We don’t know. Being self-reliant across sectors is the most serious mantra for GoI now. Shouldn’t India’s news media be self-reliant, too?

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Financial viability is the key to a thriving domestic news industry. The fascinating, complex, ever-evolving stories from India can’t be reported via tweets and posts from people who don’t cover news professionally or through YouTube videos from windbags.

We have already seen the dangerous impact of digital content that’s free from all the quality check that comes from newsroom due diligence. And this is happening when there’s still a large news industry. Imagine what will happen if the news industry begins to shrink under financial pressure. Will tweets from Pakistan determine Indians’ view on, say, Kashmir?

Producing news and views takes money. And in digital distribution of news, most of that money goes to foreign-owned companies who don’t spend a paisa generating that content. How can that not be of serious concern to any government in the world’s largest democracy? And especially to a government that has shown steely determination in taking on Big Tech on so many other issues, and is determined to make so many other industries self-reliant?

Google and FB won’t relent in India unless GoI, Parliament and regulators like the Competition Commission of India (

) start seriously questioning them on why they take away most of the money earned from digitally distributed news content produced by Indian media firms.

News has to be aatmanirbhar, too.

Views expressed are author’s own





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