At MozFest 2021, the Amsterdam AI, Media & Democracy Lab and the City of Amsterdam co-organized a panel asking the thought-experiment question, “What would happen if Facebook or Google decided tomorrow to follow the Australian example and leave the Netherlands because they do not agree with the direction in which the debates around the Digital Service Acts are evolving?”
The panelists are now sharing the main insights of the thought experiment, the MozFest session, and three possible scenarios that emerged from the discussion.
In February of 2021, Australians woke up to find news outlets and other non-media-related organizations barred from Facebook. The audience was welcomed by a message on the platform stating that "in response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia”. The move came after the Australian government drafted a law requiring some tech giants to pay for the use of news content on their platforms.
Inspired by the Australian case, the AI, Media & Democracy Lab, a multidisciplinary group of researchers working on the challenges and opportunities of AI and digital technologies for media and democracy, organised a workshop around this topic at the Mozilla Festival. For this event, researchers and practitioners alike were invited to answer a question that is relevant to media professionals, policy makers and academics also outside and beyond the Australia case: What would happen if Facebook and Google left your country tomorrow?
The first scenario was brought by Marietje Schaake,privacy expert and former member of the European Parliament, suggesting that after the shock of Google and Facebook leaving a country, awareness and a great momentum of innovation will follow. Mark Deuze, professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), agreed with this and pointed to the fact that there is already great innovation in newsrooms and journalism research ongoing. However, Alexandra Borchardt, journalist and senior associate of Reuters Institute, pointed out that even though news media have already started diversifying distribution strategies, the dependency in funding and infrastructure on Facebook and Google remains high, to a certain degree. Thus, If Google and Facebook became less dominant, news media would be encouraged to start innovating and building alternative platforms to fill the void with a diverse lively media landscape. To do so, media organizations would need substantial financial funding for the creation of alternative digital infrastructures, media innovation, skills, and so on. Also, it would require reconsidering the regulatory framework in Europe, including the rules about competition law, state subsidy and geared current initiatives at the European level to boost AI innovation in the journalistic sector. Nonetheless, the prospects for increased innovation inside newsrooms are a promising scenario if Facebook and Google left the Netherlands.
A second scenario was highlighted by Alexandra Borchardt. She stressed the deep structural as well as financial dependency of the news industry on companies like Google and Facebook for funding and investment. According to Borchardt, a departure could either seriously put journalism under pressure or eventually result in the creation of new monopolies, as a lack of public investment could allow one or two large media organizations to fill the gap. Similarly, as criticized in Australia, a high level of media concentration is likely to go at the costs of smaller outlets. Regarding the Australian case, Rupert Murdoch’s dominant News Corp was expected to fill the void left by big tech, but also in other countries, including in Europe, there is the possibility that dominant media players would fill the void that the platforms left. While the media landscape in Europe is more diverse and pluralistic than in Australia, it is unclear how that scenario would play out if big tech left the EU. It does reaffirm the need for reformed media concentration laws to avoid such a situation as well as diverse public investments.
The third possible scenario is a more realistic case, where Google and Facebook decide to stay in the country. In this case, the practitioner in the panel, Hella Hueck, Dutch journalist and critical thinker about technology, was most optimistic about the situation and praised news media’s value. She commented that newsrooms should be more self-confident about their value to tech platforms. Hueck also reflected on the Australian case and noticed the case is a clear demonstration of news value for technological platforms. The fact that Facebook and Google stayed in Australia exemplifies their need for the media. Otherwise, Facebook would have kept news publishers off the platform. It should be acknowledged that the platforms open up significant opportunities for the news media to reach audiences that have been underserved by journalism before.
The three scenarios unanimously demonstrated the need for media innovation and supportive government policies, as well as reformed rules to avoid new forms of media concentration. The Australian case is an important wake-up call to not walk unprepared for breaking this dependent relationship.
The AI, Media & Democracy Lab, in cooperation with members of this panel, created a list of recommendations for balancing the relationship between technological platforms and the media industry, preventing situations as the Australian case:
- Firstly, policymakers should set the rules for enabling funding opportunities in innovation without impinging on the independence of the media and bearing in mind the need for diversity in the media ecosystem. As Borchardt pointed out during the workshop, currently, much of media innovation is dependent on big tech-driven initiatives, such as the Google News Initiative. An important step would be to create a more independent funding environment in the media ecosystem. Policymakers and lawmakers alike should create conditions for innovation that is supportive of smaller, independent, and regional outlets, helping to diversify the media landscape and avoid favouring large media corporations at the cost of smaller and local outlets.
- Secondly, public institutions should enhance collaboration between the public and media organizations. As mentioned by Johan Oomen, head of Research and Heritage Services at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, public institutions have a unique role in boosting cooperation between the audience and the media by creating alternative infrastructures that consider public values when reporting the news. In this regard, Ger Baron, Chief Technology Officer of the City of Amsterdam, also pointed out it is necessary to create better alternatives that enhance democracy. Thus, initiatives such as PublicSpaces could be an example of collaboration between parties to develop alternative platforms following European values. Public institutions should also cooperate to avoid monopolistic infrastructures that limit diverse media environments, fostering the utilization of local platforms with closer relationships to the audience.
- Thirdly, media partners should gain confidence in what they add to the table. Hueck proposed media partners need to be confident about the value they add to platforms, bearing in mind their social power. Confidence in what they add to the table is key for the negotiations on advertisement revenues with big tech platforms, imperative funding for unconstrained media business models. Although Google and Facebook have a lot of economic power, newsrooms should also be more self-reliant on their social power to create new platforms. As Hueck mentioned, local publishers are established content providers with the recognition of their audiences, which could help to establish local platforms with well-addressed regulations and more community contact.
- Finally, academics and researchers should cooperate with different stakeholders for media innovation. Indeed, one of the core ideas at the center of the AI, Media & Democracy Lab is to contribute to media innovation by combining practice with research. In that context, Deuze highlighted the need for the media ecosystem to boost resilience by innovating and reinventing themselves and by taking advantage of emerging talent. Thus, researchers, journalists, and academics should collaborate on stimulating new talent, building the appropriate digital skills for new media landscapes, nurturing juvenile's ideas to reinvent ways of communication with the audience, aiding journalists with knowledge for renewing the sector, endorsing informed policymaking, and promoting the responsible use of AI and new digital technologies.
The Australian Case is just another example of the power that digital platforms have over media organizations. Other cases, such as Google's News restrictions in response to the Spanish's copyright law and Alphabet's curtailment of YouTube videos in Germany, also work as wake-up calls regarding the dominance of these platforms over the media landscape, reinforcing the need to set new regulations on tech platforms and promote independent media environments. The initiatives will not be possible without the support of multiple stakeholders such as media organizations, policymakers, academia, and most importantly, the audience. Thus, we should bear in mind the social consequences of private, global companies deciding on public challenges as we have seen in previous scenarios. In the meantime, we should also showcase and celebrate extraordinary journalistic initiatives while incentivizing an innovative independent media landscape.
The AI, Media, and Democracy Lab combine practice with research to solve and anticipate the issues of modern technologies, securing healthy landscapes for our democracy. Learn more about our projects and collaborate with us!
- Valeria Resendez, PhD Candidate, Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) at University of Amsterdam (UvA).
- Theresa Josephine Seipp, PhD Candidate, Institute for Information Law (IViR) at University of Amsterdam (UvA).
- Tomás Dodds, Postdoctoral Researcher in Artificial Intelligence and Automation, Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR) at University of Amsterdam (UvA).
- Natali Helberger, distinguished professor at Institute for Information Law (IViR) at University of Amsterdam (UvA).
- Claes de Vreese, distinguished professor of Artificial Intelligence, Data & Democracy and professor and chair of Political Communication at UvA
- Alexandra Borchardt, journalist, journalism professor at University of Art in Berlin, media consultant and Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
- Hella Hueck, Dutch journalist at the Dutch newspaper FD, critical thinker about technology and digital influencer
- Mark Deuze, professor of Media Studies at Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR),University of Amsterdam (UvA)
- Ger Baron, Chief Technology Officer of the City of Amsterdam, partner of AI, Media and Democracy Lab