Will Biden oppose Australia on code, split tech companies?

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Speculation about his attitude to Australia's proposed media code is rife as Joe Biden assumes the US presidency.

Or will our relationship with the US even allow it? Submissions to the Senate committee has been told the code may breach non-discrimination provisions of a free-trade agreement, concerns which have been raised both the US Chamber of Commerce and the US government's trade representative, but are rejected by Nine Entertainment chief executive Hugh Marks.

In the Australian Financial Review, Sydney University associate professor Salvatore Babones says Biden is likely to "strongly support" US tech companies, perhaps leading to pressure on Australia to water down the legislation, which outgoing president Donald Trump had also opposed.

A major crackdown on companies such as Google and Facebook is anticipated in comments by King River Capital co-founder Zebediah Rice, who says an expected "aggressive approach" will lead to demergers, in turn creating opportunities for new companies. Rice speculates that Facebook may be broken up into three separate companies.

Babones thinks Netflix and Disney+ may lobby the new president on extending local content rules to streaming platforms, while Rice expects greater scrutiny of digital platforms' handling of user-generated content in the wake of the US Capitol riots.

Meanwhile Tim Berners-Lee - the man credited with inventing the world wide web - says the proposed media code could break it. A submission to the Senate inquiry claims the code could undermine the fundamental principle of being able to freely link to other web sites and content. Requiring digital platforms such as Facebook and Google to pay to host such links could make the web unworkable if other countries were to adopt similar measures, he says.

Facebook has argued in its submission to another Senate inquiry - this time into media diversity - that it and Google have already been the subject of so much scrutiny over the last four years that they should be left alone. It also contends that the inquiry should realise that challenges facing the Australian news industry are not its fault and that news content is not a major source of its revenue.

In a post this morning, Facebook says other countries will be prioritised for investment "until we understand the impact" of the News Media Bargaining Code. Roll out of Facebook News is also on hold "unless the legislation is changed". Local managing director Will Easton claims the proposed law, "in its current form" could expose the social media company to "more than 1000 standalone commercial arrangements".

While Google's Mel Silva and her Facebook oppo apparently prefer to act the 'lady bountiful', instead handing out cash to grateful media companies, there is growing concern about the power they wield. A survey by the Australia Institute's Centre for Responsible Technology found widespread concern over the Google's recent 'experiments' with its search and news algorithm. Some 83 per cent of a national sample of 1003 in Australia said search engines should be required to disclose details of such experiments. Four out of every five respondents said it was 'disturbing' that Australian news can be removed from search results in such an experiment.

Elsewhere, Poynter has reported a study saying concentrated economic power in the hands of tech giants and hedge funds has helped drive the decline of the news industry. The nonprofit American Economic Liberties Project says Google and Facebook have monopolised the advertising market, starving online publishers of advertising revenue, while the other major issue news publishers face is the rise of private equity funds that "buy and pillage" struggling newspapers.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Tim Berners-Lee (photo John S. and James L. Knight Foundation via Wikimedia Commons)

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