Lords Call For Code To Ensure Fair Bargaining Between The Platforms And Publishers

Only a mandatory bargaining code with independent arbitration can ensure that news media publishers get a fair deal from the tech platforms, an influential committee of peers had said.

In its report ‘Freedom for all? Freedom of expression in the digital age,’ the Communications and Digital Committee said there was a “fundamental imbalance of power” between the platforms and the publishers which a code could correct.

“We reiterate our recommendation for a mandatory bargaining code to ensure fair negotiations between platforms and publishers,” peers said. “Google’s and Facebook’s voluntary initiatives to pay some publishers for some of the use of their content are welcome. However, such agreements reflect the fundamental imbalance of power between the two sides.”

“As the Competition and Markets Authority has noted, publishers have little choice but to accept the terms they are offered. Only a mandatory bargaining code, with the possibility of independent arbitration, can ensure that publishers—particularly smaller and local publishers—get a fair deal. The code should also cover how platforms use and curate publishers’ content.”

The News Media Association welcomed the Committee’s call for a code but urged Government to legislate as quickly as possible to give the Digital Markets Unit – which would oversee the functioning of the code – the teeth it needs to do the job.

The Committee said: “The Government should introduce legislation to give statutory powers to the Digital Markets Unit during the current parliamentary session. This is if anything more important than the Online Safety Bill.

“Given the impact of competition on freedom of expression and privacy standards, the Digital Markets Unit should include human rights in its assessments of consumer welfare alongside economic harm.”

In the report, peers criticised Google’s dominance of the digital advertising market which it described as “opaque and unfair.”

“Google’s dominance throughout the intermediation chain, on both the demand and supply side, would not be permitted in any other market,” peers said. “The broken market has made it more difficult for news publishers to survive, let alone thrive. Having a wide range of viable news publishers is essential for freedom of expression.”

The Committee also said that content moderation decisions by the platforms “are often unreasonably inconsistent and opaque, and sometimes seem to be influenced by commercial and political considerations.”

“Moderating social media platforms is a very difficult task. Huge volumes of content are posted every day. Algorithms cannot understand context, nuance or irony; these also pose challenges for human moderators.”