The Australian government’s recently introduced News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code is not an isolated phenomenon. I believe it sets a firm precedent for other countries and trading blocs to introduce similar legislation in the near future. This is part of a complex process of an evolutionary realignment of the internet with long-reaching consequences. To simplify, we can look at this realignment at three scales, let’s call them tactical, operational, and strategic.
On a tactical scale, media bargaining codes of the type recently negotiated between the Australian government and Google and Facebook give established legacy media companies a stable income from their content circulating within the Google and Facebook walled gardens. This is represented by these same legacy media as a victory against the social media giants but is in fact a victory against smaller media competitors who would find it much harder to negotiate similar payouts. The income stability gives legacy media companies in the newspaper, TV and radio sectors a brief life extension in the face of collapsing audience numbers and advertising revenue. However, the respite will be brief because Millenials and Gen Z consume their news and media entertainment in completely different formats, and from platforms outside of legacy media control. In the short term, the media bargaining codes do not affect the social media giants in any meaningful way because their revenue does not come from content but from leveraging the behavioral data of their users.
There is an argument that tech giants can retaliate against this type of legislation by scaling back their operations in a given country. I think this is a possibility in a few isolated cases where the loss of users does not seriously affect advertising revenue. However, tech giants are far more dependent on their users than their users are on them. Of course, they do not like their users to know that, but the logic of revenue generation is simple. The business model of social media giants is built around content delivery and advertising based on user behavioral preferences. When users start migrating to other platforms advertising revenue starts falling and the entire model is in crisis. Facebook made an important mistake in closing news channels in the Australian market as this only managed to generate bad optics with the public and more support for the government to call Facebook’s bluff. Which it did, and Facebook folded immediately.
On an operational scale, media bargaining codes set a precedent for direct government interference in the revenue streams of internet and social media companies. From now on this interference will only intensify, with governments around the globe pushing the envelope on what is possible. If content qualifying as news can be legislated in this way, then so can all other content. For example, governments can start legislating different monetary values for different content, based on content types or the semantics of the information being displayed. Or, they can start imposing penalties for censorship, as the legislation currently being discussed in Poland, or for its absence. In other words, what is at stake is the entire modus operandi of social media, built around content delivery and advertising based on user behavioral preferences. Break content delivery, or make it too expensive, and you break the entire model.
Fundamentally, the tech giants have no effective retaliatory measures against these types of legislation, short of lobbying against them with legislators. After years of creeping selective censorship, they have long lost whatever good will they had with users. Remember Google’s “don’t be evil”? After the spectacle of US social media giants coordinating to shut down and censor the voices of a sitting US president and his supporters in an election year, no sane government will stop to consider the ethics of legislating against these companies. Their time is up.
On a strategic scale, this realignment is part of a tectonic process of clusterization of the internet. The network was built to be information-agnostic, that is, data was to be able to travel freely across the network regardless of the semantic value it carried. The internet was, and to an extent still is, a “river of copies” as Kevin Kelly put it. With the selective legislation of content, we are seeing the appearance of dammed lakes on the river of copies. The long-term effects of this process lead to the emergence of different sovereign internet clusters with their own legislative frameworks around content, and a highly filtered information flow between them.
I don’t think it will be a full fragmentation, because the network is far too valuable to break it completely. Instead, I believe we will witness the emergence of sovereign internet clusters organized around national and supranational borders. The Chinese internet is an obvious example, and I think Russia will soon close off its own fully sovereign internet as well, to be joined by an EU internet, possibly a Commonwealth internet, and so on. Information flow between clusters will still be possible, just like it is possible to access the open internet from within the great Chinese firewall by using a VPN. However, I think clusters will try to keep content within the cluster as much as possible. There would also probably emerge a fully distributed internet 2.0 which would act as a wild west periphery to the sovereign clusters.