Senate committee gives bargaining code the green light

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

A senate committee has given the green light to the big tech media bargaining code, but has paved the way for further government amendments to the controversial legislation next week.

The government-led Senate Economics Legislation Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the legislation, which will force Google and Facebook to enter into final offer arbitration with media companies to determine a revenue sharing deal for the use of news content, since late last year.

It held two public hearings into the bill and received 55 submissions.

Canberra Parliament
Power play – the Media Bargaining Code is now about the news. Photo: DavidWebb/Shutterstock

The committee handed down its verdict on Friday afternoon, recommending only that the legislation be passed. The committee chair, Liberal Senator Slade Brockman, did however leave room for further revisions to be made to the code before it is passed by Parliament.

“Despite the concerns raised by various submitters and witnesses, the committee is confident that the bill will deliver on its intended outcomes,” the committee’s report said.

“Its provisions will provide the basis for a more equitable relationship between the media and Google / Facebook and, through this, help safeguard public interest journalism in Australia. Accordingly, the committee recommends that the bill be passed.”

The committee did however point out that even those in strong support of the legislation said that further amendments are required.

“The committee accepts that there remains the possibility that not all risks have been taken into account, and that further refinements may be needed to the arbitration mechanisms and other parts of the code so that they work in an optimum manner,” it said in the report.

The report is the last step before the legislation is debated in Parliament, which is likely to begin next week. The government itself may still make amendments to the legislation,  and Labor and the Greens are expected to do so.

Labor Senators in the committee also recommended the bill be passed, but said this is subject to the government addressing “key concerns”.

The committee’s report acknowledged the polarised opinions of the bargaining code, with large media companies in full support and big tech firms railing against it. Google has threatened to withdraw its search engine from Australia if the code is implemented, while Facebook said it may block Australian news content from being shared on its platform.

The report lists the range of concerns with the bargaining code, including that it is unworkable, will bring about unforeseen outcomes, may strengthen existing market players and may possibly violate international treaties and trade agreements.

But the committee said that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission “effectively rebutted many of the assertions made by those critical of the bill”.

“While the evidence received demonstrated some polarised views on the bill, there is significant support for the bill’s aims. Further, while some submitters have questioned the methods and recommended additional refinements, there is a strong view that large multinational technology companies should not remain outside sensible regulations that protect the public interest,” the report said.

In additional comments to the report, Labor senators said that while the Opposition will support the legislation in Parliament, the government must circulate its amendments to it “as a matter of urgency”.

The Opposition said that the concerns about the bill were previously raised during public consultation but not addressed by the government.

“Labor senators support the intention of the bill which is to address the dominance of digital platforms Google and Facebook for the benefit of the Australian news media. Labor senators note, however, that the corollary of addressing the dominance of digital platforms may involve potential impacts beyond the news media, the outcomes of which are unknown,” the Labor senators said.

Greens senators also provided additional comments, calling for amendments to protect small and independent publishers and to require that funds raised through the code are invested into public interest journalism.

The legislation is expected to be brought before Parliament next week.

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