Media

Regulate social media companies now: TV boss

They might not be down but they sure are getting a good kicking. Since the Christchurch terror attack, Facebook, Google and Twitter have faced an avalanche of criticism from politicians and industry leaders. The latest to weigh in is MediaWorks boss, Michael Anderson. Mark Jennings reports. 

When a major tragedy hits New Zealand, or elsewhere in the world, we expect our major TV and radio broadcasters to do two things – immediately begin 24-hour news coverage of the event and drop all advertising.

In modern media times the precedent was set when Princess Diana was fatally injured in a Paris tunnel in 1997. When aircraft were flown into the World Trade Centre in New York on 9/11, coverage was wall-to-wall. The Christchurch earthquakes saw mammoth efforts from local broadcasters as the country and the world tried to comprehend the extent of the damage and loss of life in the city.

The accumulated experience these events have given our newsrooms was evidenced by the speed at which live coverage was mounted and sustained on March 15.

At commercial TV networks like MediaWorks and TVNZ it’s not just the newsrooms working around the clock. The programmers, sales reps, advertising schedulers, engineers, and IT  staff are involved in a huge amount of work.

Programmes and advertising campaigns are disrupted and costs, often unforeseen, soar.

Viewers and listeners expect a high level of integrity from local media and hold them accountable. New Zealand media accept that.

The same, as we all know, is not true of Facebook, Google or Twitter. 

The groundswell against the global giants has been growing by the day. MediaWorks boss Michael Anderson is the latest to call for government action.

“Facebook has not and does not provide a safe environment. Not for their audience, not for their advertisers. Yet it is Facebook who are profiteering as they monetise everything, including our content and the audience who are using the platform to grieve and share.”

“When you look at who are the real-world powers now, it’s not the UN, they’re relatively useless, it’s not NATO, it’s falling apart. No, the real de-facto powers are Facebook and Google and they use their leverage against individual governments.

“As a local media company, we are regulated via the Broadcasting Standards Authority and apply self-regulation via the Advertising Standards Authority so that the New Zealand public are presented appropriate content for our society and also to ensure that advertising is appropriately governed.

“Facebook has not and does not provide a safe environment. Not for their audience, not for their advertisers. Yet it is Facebook who are profiteering as they monetise everything, including our content and the audience who are using the platform to grieve and share.”

Anderson says he is encouraged by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s statement in Parliament last week.

Ardern made it clear she doesn’t just see the social media giants as simply platforms which are immune from regulation.

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and what is said is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”

According to Anderson, the Prime Minister has, at last, drawn a line in the sand. 

“Facebook can no longer lay claim to not being a media company, they are a publisher of content and as a publisher they have obligations and must operate under the same conditions as local publishers of content.”

Anderson points to Germany as an example of a nation unafraid to take on Facebook.

Last year Germany passed a law to punish social media platforms if they don’t remove hate speech within 24 hours. They can be fined up to 50 million euros. The maximum fine for traditional media printing or airing illegal content is tiny in comparison – 250,000 euros.

Facebook responded by deleting hundreds of offensive posts including anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denial propaganda.

Journalists, lawyers and free-speech advocates reacted against the law claiming it will force social media platforms to shut down people’s right to freedom of expression in Germany.

“It will take a bit of courage but at the moment we have leverage if we all work together. Media companies, advertisers, internet providers, politicians and the public all want change but it won’t happen if we let it drag out for two years, it needs to happen now.”

Local media bosses railing against the global tech giants is not new. The New Zealand market for digital advertising is valued at more than a billion dollars a year, but media in this country has been missing out big time. Industry reports suggest that for every new dollar going to digital platforms, 95 percent is going to Facebook and Google.

“These companies avoid regulation, transparency and therefore accountability in every area of our media ecosystem. Nowhere (other than internally at Facebook, Google and Twitter) are their actual revenues reported,” says Anderson.

The same is true of other countries that the big platforms operate in and there are signs that governments have had enough.

In Australia, the ACCC released their preliminary findings in 2018 indicating the need for potential new regulations to stop major tech companies from abusing their power to the detriment of Australia’s media and digital advertising industries.  

Here in New Zealand, before we faced the events of March 15, Cabinet said it would issue a discussion document in May on how to update tax settings to suit the digital world, likely with a "Digital Sales Tax", similar to what is being explored in Australia and the European Union. 

While he concedes that New Zealand represents no more than a blip in revenue for the global giants, he thinks the Government has an opportunity to tax and regulate the likes of Facebook if it acts within the next six months.

“It will take a bit of courage but at the moment we have leverage if we all work together. Media companies, advertisers, internet providers, politicians and the public all want change but it won’t happen if we let it drag out for two years, it needs to happen now.”

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