As a long-time “old man yelling at cloud” on the subject of digital rights and the power of the tech companies, I was initially cautiously in favour of the News Media Bargaining Code when it was announced last year. I have long written about how tech companies are eroding democracy and heightening socio-economic inequality. I’ve been waiting for some time now for the backlash: for the revolution against big tech.
I was disappointed, however, to discover that the revolution was being spearheaded by Josh Frydenberg – surely the least-interesting person in Canberra – and that it was merely another age-old story of two groups of elites wrestling for power. The code effectively ensures that Facebook upholds the Murdoch media monopoly by paying major news sources for the content they provide on their platform.
While I am no fan of the Murdoch empire, the precedent this code sets is interesting: making social media companies pay for the data that has so far been freely given to them. Facebook claims that the bargaining code “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between its platform and media companies. It argues that Facebook functions as an advertising platform that media companies can choose to use in order to increase their viewer base.
Here, Facebook is deliberately misrepresenting its business model.
Facebook markets itself as a free-to-use product financed by advertising revenue. In this understanding, the “product” is Facebook itself, and we are the user. What this explanation misses, however, is how we pay for this product. In return for “providing” us with a service, Facebook collects our data. At first glance this may seem fairly benign. It is important to remember, however, that Facebook is not a charity but a business, and the goal of any business is to grow: to accumulate capital. Thus, as Facebook generates capital by collecting data, its business goal is to accumulate data.
This means that the Facebook platform is not the product: it’s the machinery that manufactures the product. Instead, we are the product; the product is our data. Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard professor and author of Surveillance Capitalism, describes how social media platforms have thus become “extractive operations” that quantify and commodify human experiences online in order to accumulate user data. They build complex profiles of us to present perfectly curated news feeds that will draw us in and maintain our engagement for as long as possible. This practice results, at best, in addictive behaviours that distance us from each other socially. At worst – as Nolan Higdon describes in The Anatomy of Fake News – this business model encourages the spread of content that appeals to “strong lower emotions that have been shown to increase user engagement” like hate speech, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.
The first step to ending this dangerous and exploitative business model is to regain control of our data. One thing the News Media Bargaining Code gets right is it recognises that the labour input in the process of data accumulation comes from the user, not the platform provider. When we share a post or care react to a puppy photo, we are freely providing Facebook with our data. Likewise, when news media companies share their articles on Facebook, they contribute to Facebook’s data collection efforts. The News Media Bargaining Code thus attributes the labour of data accumulation to the companies who create the content and rewards them as such.
The problem with the code, however, is that it takes a good premise – making Facebook pay for data – and twists it to solidify other hierarchies of capital accumulation. This is the bourgeois revolution: Australian media companies are piggy backing on legitimate criticisms of social media companies to increase (or, perhaps, reclaim) their own power, just as the urban bourgeois of Europe inspired the revolts against aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries.
What Australia needs, instead, is a version of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which gives users more control over who can access their data, and obliges tech companies to be transparent about how user data is collected and stored. Tech firms must explicitly ask for users’ consent to collect any data, and privacy settings are automatically set to their highest. We don’t need more bargaining power for big media companies, we need legislation that asserts these rights of the digital citizen. It truly shows the lack of imagination in Australian politics that our first national confrontation with big tech is merely a defence of big news media. I had hoped the revolution would be a little more original.