India must break the grip of Big Tech on digital news

digital news publishers vs big tech
India is struggling to regulate Big Tech and ensure a healthy digital news ecosystem for its citizens.

Indian digital news publishers and Big Tech companies are at odds over revenue sharing, prompting the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B) to step in and mediate. On Wednesday, an inter-ministerial meeting with various departments, including the ministry of corporate affairs (MCA), Competition Commission of India (CCI), ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY), and departments of promotion of industry and internal trade (DPIIT), legal affairs, and consumer affairs was held to address the issue.

As the government drafts a Digital Competition Bill proposed by the MCA, digital news publishers have approached it regarding the abuse of dominant positions by Big Tech players in ad-revenue sharing agreements. 

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Big Tech vs digital publishers

News publishers and Big Tech giants like Google and Meta have a codependent relationship, with many users relying on online platforms for news. Big Tech acts as an intermediary, generating traffic for news websites while taking a portion of ad revenue in return. However, news publishers have become increasingly wary of the fact that these online players are allegedly taking a higher percentage of the generated ad revenue, leaving publishers struggling in a difficult environment.

The Digital Competition Bill responds to recommendations from an expert committee that studied the need for upfront regulations on Big Tech companies. The Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA) is pushing the government to implement stricter regulations on Big Tech companies, accusing them of abusing their dominant market position. These practices include a lack of transparency in data and advertising revenue sharing, manipulating search engine results to favour their own services, and bundling or tying practices that limit user choice.

Big Tech is also accused of collecting user data to gain an unfair advantage and enabling practices like keyword bidding that can infringe on registered trademarks. The DNPA demands that the CCI should have the power to check for abuse of dominant positions before any revenue-sharing agreement is settled. 

Global best practices

The tussle between publishers and online giants is not unique to India. News publishers worldwide have been asking for a mandate to settle ad revenue sharing and address copyright concerns over the use of snippets of text from linked articles within search results, which diverts traffic from their websites.

The most recent instance of framing a law is the Canadian Online News Act, which requires Big Tech giants to pay news publishers for news content published on their platforms. However, a fallout of this was Google pulling its Google News service from Canada in response to the law. Other countries, such as Australia and France, are also in the process of designing laws to address the issue. 

India’s Digital Competition Bill

The proposed Digital Competition Bill seeks to rein in the power of big digital companies by establishing a category called Systemically Significant Digital Enterprises (SSDEs) based on specific criteria. Companies falling under this category will be required to notify the CCI. To ensure fair competition and user protection, the Bill mandates several requirements for SSDEs.

These requirements include setting up clear and transparent mechanisms to address user and business complaints, operating with complete transparency towards both regular users and businesses on the platform, and avoiding any practices that favour their own products, services, or affiliated businesses. Additionally, SSDEs will be prohibited from using the confidential data of businesses operating on their platform.

A US lobby group representing tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Apple voiced concerns about India’s proposed digital competition law, arguing that the regulations restricting data usage and preferential treatment of their partners could lead to increased costs for users. To address copyright and ad-sharing issues, India may instead develop a separate framework rather than incorporating it into the Digital Competition Bill.

While negotiating any agreement between news agencies and online companies, the government must ensure that small media houses are not left out. Tech giants could prioritise deals with well-funded or politically connected publishing houses, raising concerns about biased news reporting. If Big Tech becomes the gatekeeper, they could decide which publishers get a platform and potentially influence the content itself, limiting the diversity of voices and information reaching the public. This is especially pertinent at a time when small news media outlets are already struggling to find traffic, and fewer people are willing to pay for online subscriptions.

India also has an advantage while negotiating with Big Tech due to its large population, giving the government better bargaining power. The government must strive to find the best way to protect the interests of its local publishers.