Agius Saliba: We can’t stand up to these big tech giants alone, but we can join forces

The pressure is on worldwide to start regulating tech giants, as Australia passed a controversial media bargaining code that will require social media platforms to pay for news content on their site

Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba
Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba

The pressure is on worldwide to start regulating tech giants, as Australia passed a controversial media bargaining code that will require social media platforms to pay for news content on their site.

However, Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba revealed to MaltaToday that the European Parliament remains heavily divided on the issue, with EU lawmakers risking to miss a golden opportunity to reform the European system if the discussion ends up derailed due to developments in Australia.

Two pieces of legislation for part of Europe’s digital strategy are the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which aim to establish a level playing field within the European Single Digital Market.

More concretely, the DSA will oblige large platforms to inform their users, using simple language, of the parameters by which algorithms recommend content or online adverising to its users. Large platforms in this case refers to sites reaching over 10% of the EU’s population, or 45 million European users.

The DMA is more concerned with the monopolistic tendencies of big tech platforms, whereby they act as digital gatekeepers to the single market. The legislation will grant the EU power to impose sanctions for non-compliance, including fines reaching up to 10% of the website’s worldwide turnover.

“Big tech has become an unavoidable trading partner for news publishers, and the issue needs to be addressed and discussed at length, but the EU shouldn’t risk reigniting the copyright issue, which was somewhat settled through the introduction of the controversial Copyright Directive,” Agius Saliba said.

Article 15 of the directive imposes a so-called “link tax” on content aggregators, automatically granting news publishers the right to negotiate a licence with aggregators like Google, with individual journalists entitled to a share of the money their publication receives from the licensing agreement negotiated.

This directive has already beared fruit in some Member states. Last month, an agreement was reached between Google France and the French publishing collective Alliance de la Presse d’Information Generale, whereby Google will start paying French publishers for content published to the search engine’s News Showcase – a press publication licensing program not yet available in Malta.

The directive hasn’t yet been transposed across every Member State. Agius Saliba argues that the EU would be better off waiting to see how this directive will be transposed across the bloc, and then looking into a wider piece of legislation that will more rigorously regulate tech giants.

“Through the DSA and DMA we take back some control in the media ecosystem, but if we try to solve copyright issues already tackled in another directive under these acts, we risk opening a pandora’s box and derailing the discussion,” he said.

Agius Saliba mentioned that he is in favour of arbitration processes to help strike a fair balance between the media industry and tech companies, although not necessarily by copying the arbitration system adopted in Australia.

Advertising serves as the bulwark of any mediahouse’s profit, but companies are shifting towards digital advertisement spaces, often on Facebook and Google, to the extent that in 2015 the two companies accounted for 75% of all new online ad spending. This fosters a skewed negotiating environment whereby tech companies have the upper hand.

All this has implications for the rise of sensationalist news content. Agius Saliba warned that a digital business model focused on the number of clicks an article attracts will only serve to promote sensationalist content. “We could kill serious media and investigative journalism while directly, or indirectly promoting sensationalist content,” he said.

An added argument to this is that Facebook and Google generate signifiant ad revenue, but rely on the content of others to drive engagement.

A survey commissioned by Alex Agius Saliba and the S&D group found that nearly 60% of Maltese social media users used online platforms to check news and remain up-to-date on current or personal affairs. More specifically, users aged over 25 as well as users with a secondary level of education claimed that this was the main reason for which they use social media.

So while news and current affairs drives significant engagement on social media, little is gained in return.

But this doesn’t mean that Malta should tackle the issue alone. As Agius Saliba rightly pointed out, if Facebook managed to bully Australia into amending their initial proposed legislation, they could do the same if not worse with any attempts in Malta.

“We can’t stand up to these big tech giants alone. It would be much more feasible for us to carry out reform and stand our ground at EU level. We’re a big bloc, and the strength of our union is that we can join forces and negotiate collectively.”

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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