Inside AFP

The Future of the Free Press is in the Hands of EU Lawmakers

On 12th September in Strasbourg, MEPs will vote on a draft law that would correct the grotesque imbalance in how internet giants plunder press publishers’ and news agencies’ content to generate advertising revenues, a situation which is already draining the lifeblood of the independent press.

The reform has been fiercely opposed by Facebook and Google, who have campaigned on a complete fabrication: a supposed threat to people's free access to the internet. Yet this has never been in the slightest doubt.

What the proposal aims to change is quite simple. Without paying for it, internet giants such as Google and Facebook use vast quantities of news that is produced at great cost by press publishers and news agencies. They use those stories to attract more and more advertising money and in doing so, divert revenue away from the press publishers. Their huge audiences lure a growing slice of content-related advertising, to the point that Facebook and Google have effectively become a duopoly, garnering them 80 percent of global internet advertising revenue, excepting China, in 2017.

Under the reform, they would have to share a small fraction of their sales revenue with the producers of that content. It is about bringing copyright law up to date with reality, nothing more. The last European directive on this dates back to an era when Google, Facebook, YouTube and smartphones had yet to see the light of day.

The fundamental question is: Why should the internet giants get almost all the advertising revenue from stories they did not pay to produce?

Press publishers and news agencies find themselves in a ludicrous situation: it is they who invest large sums to produce the news and it is their journalists who, sometimes at great personal risk, endeavour to provide accurate, diverse and comprehensive news coverage. They must finance the large investments needed for online news operations. As paper sales plunge, their only hope lies with the development of internet revenue. Yet they see the big internet players snatch the fruits of their labour for free, depriving them of the possibility of monetising their content and siphoning off potential advertising revenue.

The result has been the impoverishment of an entire industry. In 20 years, the large internet players have sapped the strength of the traditional media, despite the media's usually successful efforts to develop online audiences. Since 2000, the advertising revenues of the written press have plummeted across Europe: by 70 percent, for example, for press publishers in France. Thousands of journalists have been laid off in a succession of redundancy plans. Over the past 10 years in the United States, home of the dominant internet players, the press publishers have lost more than half of their advertising revenues and the press corps some 45% of their number – down to 39,000 journalists.

The internet giants' plundering of press publishers’ content and of their advertising revenue poses a threat both to consumers and to democracy, to the extent that they are emptying newsrooms and undercutting any means of financing high quality, on-the-ground journalism. It is this imbalance that the proposed directive aims to correct, by enabling the authors to receive fair remuneration for their work.

Can the titans of the internet compensate the media without asking people to pay for access to the internet, as they claim they would be forced to? The answer is clearly 'yes'. Facebook reported $40 billion in revenues in 2017, with profits of $16 billion. Google brought in $110 billion in revenue the same year, making $12.7 billion in profit. Who could reasonably argue that they are not in a position to make fair payment for the content they use?

While these companies manage to escape paying taxes in Europe, is it acceptable that they also make no payment to the content suppliers who pay taxes and bear the cost of actually reporting the news? Can European lawmakers accept that national and European media content is siphoned off by the internet giants? Do they see the risk, that the only survivors in the news industry will be increasingly dependent on taxpayers’ money – and on the governments our news agencies are supposed to hold to account?

What we are really talking about is introducing a fair payment by those who have ripped off the news. For the sake of Europe’s free press and democratic values, EU lawmakers should press ahead with copyright reform.