Charles Gutjahr

Melbourne, Australia

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Charles Gutjahr

A short opinion

The draft news media bargaining code in Australia

Wow this ruckus over publishing Australian news on Facebook and Google is... weird.

Usually any time Aussie technology becomes a big story I'm all over it with opinions, but I haven't known what to think about this one. After letting it stew in my brain for a few weeks I've decided: Australia should go hard and regulate Facebook and Google; even though the ACCC code is unworkable nonsense it just might be the shakeup the internet needs right now.

Now for a long, arcane justification for why I think that:

Once upon a time, newspapers in Australia were big and powerful and earned "rivers of gold" from selling classified advertising. These ads paid for quality journalism (or at least lots of journalists) in a nice symbiotic relationship: the ads paids for the journalists who brought in the readers who attracted more ads. When the internet came along Australian media was slow to embrace it; they lost many lucrative job and real estate ads to early websites like Seek and REA. But the big collapse in advertising occurred when Google and Facebook arrvied a few years later; they could sell ads more cheaply (with no printing costs and no expensive journalists) which were also better targeted (due to sometimes invasive tracking of who you are and algorithms guessing what you might want). The classified advertising which once made up 90% of Fairfax's advertising revenue has almost completely disappeared now — and effectively moved to Facebook and Google ads. Hundreds of Aussie newspapers have closed and many thousands of journalists have lost their jobs.

In late 2017 the Federal Government told the ACCC to do something about it. The ACCC recommended media companies negotiate with Facebook and Google to develop a code of conduct to address power imbalances; when negotiations dragged on without a result the Government told the ACCC to develop a mandatory code. The result is the ACCC's draft news media bargaining code, which "would allow news media businesses to bargain individually or collectively with Google and Facebook over payment for the inclusion of news on their services."

Facebook and Google responded by having a conniption. Facebook said they'd block any news being shown on Facebook or Instagram in Australia. Google Search and YouTube were saturated with alarmist advertising (though Google's open letter was more nuanced).

Meanwhile I'm watching this play out and I can't decide whose side I'm on. It's fashionable to hate on Facebook these days, and I'm a proud patriotic Aussie. So shouldn't I be rooting for this code?

It's not that easy. There are a lot of problems in the ACCC's draft news media bargaining code, and it may be completely unworkable. Explaining why requires a lot of detail, but fortunately for me a lot of commentators piled on and pilloried the draft code so you can refer to one of them if you want to know this detail. Ben Thompson's article on Stratechery is a good example. I agree with some of his arguments, and disagree with some others.

I highlight just one detail that isn't in that piece: hyperlinks. A lot of this 'publishing' of news by Google and Facebook is just links to articles on newspaper and broadcast media websites. I feel very strongly that publishing a link to something must not be restricted or limited by copyright. A link is just a reference saying 'go look over there'. It is completely up to the publisher to decide whether or not to provide the article 'there', and they can change their mind at any time. A link to a newspaper article does not take away control from the publisher but gives them a chance to sell ads and subscriptions; any link should be good for the publisher yet this code implies that publishers should be paid if you want to link to their articles.

The problem with all that argument is it's right down in the weeds; it's missing the big point which is this: Google and Facebook are killing journalism in Australia. It was probably inadvertent; a market failure not an evil plan. But it is the job of the Australian Government to fix such failures, and losing news is a critical failure with dangerous effects on our democracy.

Perhaps the problem here is that sometimes governments want to be seen to be doing something, whether they are actually doing something is less important. They correctly identified a big problem but they failed to come up with a workable solution for it.

Except... actually they might have. I don't think the code can work as currently drafted. However the chain of events it set off might well lead to salvation.

The reaction from Facebook, in particular, backfired because it highlights the big problem: their immense market power. Facebook can block all news in Australia because they are more powerful than the media. Google could do the same. Market power isn't bad in itself, but if it can be used to block news — or worse, manipulate news — then it is fundamental danger to democracy. That probably sounded like a crazy conspiracy theory a few years back, but Facebook just turned that into a real threat.

The problem for Facebook is that blocking news could be fatal for them.

First up there's the political aspect. A foreign-owned, widely-disliked company suddenly shutting off the news source for two-fifths of Australians is easy political fodder. That would just open Facebook up to more and harsher regulation; it gives the Australian government cover to make changes that perhaps the public wouldn't have supported if Facebook was still just that company which shows you cute cat pictures.

The secondly and more importantly Facebook and Google face an existential threat if they are no longer the first place Australians turn to. Let's say Facebook and Google did actually block news. Would you decide you're never going to look at the news again? I'm guessing no: instead sometimes instead of going to Facebook you'll open up the ABC app or the Herald Sun app etc instead. When a friend mentions some big thing going on you'll open up The Age website and look there. Most of us value news, even if we don't pay for it. Take it away from us and I don't think the result will be we stop wanting news; I think the result is that we'll stop relying on Facebook and Google to bring it to us.

And that must give those companies nightmares. Facebook and Google have different business models but they both rely on you turning to them first. The tables are turned if you start going directly to the source — instead of them — as then it would be their advertising at risk.

Facebook's model is to keep you on Facebook at all times. You can see that in the implementation: view a news article on the Facebook app and it shows up inside the app, it doesn't let you leave. Yes the news publisher can control what is shown and they can show ads, but Facebook encourages you to dip into one article then return to Facebook for more Facebook ads. Facebook's other big app Instagram doesn't even honour links, you're stuck there until you make the conscious decision to leave.

Google Search might seem like the opposite: its whole point is to find you something quickly and then let you leave immediately to view it. But like Facebook its power is that it's first; it mediates the experience, it decides what you see. Google Search gets first dibs on the ads, perhaps dozens of times a day. And Google's other big app YouTube is just like Facebook in that you stick around instead of leaving and watching videos directly in the publisher's app.

Facebook claims they do not need news. "The ACCC presumes that Facebook benefits most in its relationship with publishers, when in fact the reverse is true" is what they said in their press release. They are wrong. Publishers are stuck in a prisoner's dilemma where any one of them leaving Facebook is bad for that publisher, but all of them leaving Facebook would instead be bad for Facebook.

Right now you can browse Facebook and it has everything you want in one place. You can settle in with YouTube and watch anything that interests you. You can search Google and find anything you want to know. They're comprehensive. But if they shut off news then suddenly you have to go elsewhere for news, and you going elsewhere is a fundamental threat to their businesses. You opening a newspaper app instead of their app means you might get hooked on a different news feed, a compelling real news feed, causing Facebook and Google to lose all those eyeballs and all those ad dollars.

So perhaps ill-thought out regulation from the ACCC is exactly what we needed. If it causes Facebook to block news then it could help news publishers by returning some of their audience. Alternatively it could cause Facebook to negotiate a fair deal with publishers to avoid losing their precious monopoly on our time.

It's not the prettiest way to make this sausage, but I'm glad its underway. If we didn't have this draft news media bargaining code then I think Australia would be stuck with the status quo while the fourth estate slowly dies.

Charles Gutjahr

Putting this orchid on the shower bench has been a surprisingly good plan... it’s very happy and flowering again in its new spot.

Charles Gutjahr

Didn’t know I needed David Walsh’s mug on a mug, but these are strange times.

Charles Gutjahr

Blog post

Pandemic words week #4: Essential

3 Aug 2020 — a 1 minute read on COVID-19 Words

Essential

Essential services, essential workers, essential supplies... the Victorian Government repeatedly used the word "essential" while announcing the latest restrictions in Victoria. So what is essential, who gets to decide, and why?

I suppose you could say essential is whatever the 3000 word document issued today says it is. But what I think is more interesting is that we all seem to have an instinctive sense of what is essential, and it's not the high-paying jobs like corporate lawyer or management consultant. Almost everyone agrees it is the nurses, the cleaners, the grocers, the teachers who have proved essential — but they are rarely well-paid jobs. I think it shows we undervalue the essential things in life.

Charles Gutjahr

Blog post

Pandemic words week #3: Lockdown

27 Jul 2020 — a 2 minute read on COVID-19 Words

Lockdown

All us Melbournians are stuck at home in lockdown right now. But why are we calling it "lockdown"? That is not the term which the Victorian Government uses, they call it "Stay at Home" restrictions. They're the ones imposing it so why aren't we using their term?

Perhaps it's because pretty much all the media call it "lockdown"... ABC, Herald Sun, The Age, The Saturday Paper all the term. Or perhaps the media is reflecting what we all say. Have a look at the Google searches for "lockdown" versus "stay at home"... the latter hardly even registers:

Google Trends chart for 'lockdown' versus 'stay at home'

Regardless of why we use it, I think we shouldn't be. "Lockdown" has connotations of prisons and confinement, like the state is impinging on our freedoms. But these laws aren't in place to subjugate us, they're to help us and protect our health. They're a good thing! I reckon saying "lockdown" undermines that.

The problem is that "stay at home" is a bit wishy-washy. Sure it's clear, but it's not catchy like "lockdown" is.

I reckon the better option is "shelter in place", a term often used in the USA. That has a similar sense of urgency and seriousness to "lockdown" but much less negative insinuation. It feels more protective, like the state trying to warn us rather than punish us.

There are a handful of Melbournians complaining that restrictions are punishing us; fortunately their number are tiny and they are pretty much irrelevant right now. But like the virus itself a tiny number can grow exponentially if unchecked. Just like wearing a mask makes a small but useful contribution to preventing viral spread, using more positive terms could make a small but useful contribution to keeping negative sentiment in check.

Charles Gutjahr

Blog post

Pandemic words week #2: Second Wave

19 Jul 2020 — a 2 minute read on COVID-19 Words

Second Wave

What term could be more appropriate for my second week of judging pandemic words than 'second wave'? After all we're in one right now, right?

This is another term that I'd never heard before this pandemic, but now it is everywhere — and I like it! It's a good one because it sets expectations in our minds. Every time we hear second wave it is a succinct reminder to expect that this virus can come back, and hopefully that encourages people to stay vigilant and keep up the habits which reduce transmission.

I reckon it's good for our mental health too. Imagine if we strutted around in Australia with a big sign saying 'Mission Accomplished' because we'd almost eliminated the virus here by June... how would we feel when it surged again in July? It would be a lot harder to cope with if you thought that was the end of the pandemic. Hopefully all the talk of a second wave means people were mentally prepared for this surge and don't feel crushed by it. And you know what waves do? Waves pass, waves don't last forever. Calling it a wave also gives hope that this too will pass.

There is a slight catch, though, in that the term isn't technically accurate. First up, Dr Norman Swan:

Increasingly the experts in this area say we should stop talking about second wave because 'second wave' applies to influenza and a different environment. Here we are really just talking about spikes, and we are definitely in a second spike.

ABC Coronacast, 30 June 2020

The World Health Organization has been stressing recently that there is no specific definition of a second wave. It seems like the WHO feels people are misusing it, using second wave to describe what is really just the expected spikes of a first wave.

Then there is the problem that second wave implies a repeat of what happened last time... but this new surge in Victoria is very different. Have a look at these graphs from covid19data.com.au:

The first peak in March-April is mainly Victorians who caught the virus overseas:

Victorian daily new COVID-19 cases, caught overseas

The new peak in July is mainly Victorians who caught the virus locally:

Victorian daily new COVID-19 cases, caught locally

The two peaks have very different causes. It would be a mistake to treat this surge as just a repeat of last time, but perhaps the term could lull people into thinking that.

Still I think second wave is a good term. Sure the term isn't being used accurately, and we're perhaps not technically in a second wave here in Victoria yet. It doesn't matter. I think the value of second wave is not in describing what is, but in describing what could be.

Charles Gutjahr

Blog post

Judging pandemic words

12 Jul 2020 — a 1 minute read on COVID-19 Words

For a while I was posting a short opinion online each weekend, more for my benefit than yours. I find writing down my thoughts a useful bit of introspection. It is a chance to evaluate whether my instinctive reaction to an issue is right, whether I would be comfortable writing it down and standing by those words.

I had stopped in this pandemic because I don't feel like I can contribute. I don't have the scientific or epidemiological expertise that is necessary to provide valid opinions on COVID-19 — and honestly I reckon most opinions I see are junk because they too lack that expertise.

Maybe I can't opine on how to deal with the virus itself, but I reckon the language we use to describe it is fair game. Some words that we use every day I had never heard of a few months ago. Why do we use those words and not other ones?

So now Melbourne is in lockdown (ooh! there's a word!) for six weeks, let's see if I can keep up six weeks of judging pandemic words.

Week 1: Social distancing

How did we end up with the term 'social distancing' when it means distancing yourself physically from other people, not distancing yourself socially from them? I reckon we ended up with the wrong term here. It should have been 'physical distancing'.

'Physical distancing' has a natural meaning: tell me to physically distance and I can guess what you mean. But before this pandemic 'social distancing' would have sounded more like 'social isolation' or 'social withdrawal' to me; not what is meant by the term, and indeed exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. This pandemic is hard on our mental health and we need to keep up that social contact even when we are physically distant.

I'm glad to see that the Victorian and Australian governments seem to have switched to saying physical distancing now. I have too.

Charles Gutjahr

The Alehouse Project
Cramming in some pub time tonight before they’re shut for the next few weeks.