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Is Indian govt looking into relationship between tech companies and news publishers? MPs ask IT Ministry

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Several Members of the Indian Parliament have asked the government whether it plans to look into the relationship between global technology platforms and news publishers. The question posed by the MPs marks the beginning of a discussion in India around the contentious relationship between news publishers and social media giants such as Facebook and Google.

The question was asked in the Lok Sabha by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members — PP Chaudhary, Arjun Lal Meena, Kaushal Kishore and Aparajita Sarangi. They asked whether the government was planning to regulate digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and whether it has taken cognizance of the “unrelenting debate on the relationship between these tech platforms and news publishers”.

Sanjay Dhotre, Minister of State, MEITY did not answer the question directly, and instead referred to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which the government notified a few weeks ago. The Rules prescribe a three-tiered regulatory mechanism over digital news media outlets as well as OTT streaming services, but does not necessarily contemplate the financial relationship between digital news and social media.

In the reply, Dhotre said that the Rules provide accountability for platforms. “Digital platforms for users generated content are intermediaries as defined in the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000. However, off late some of the digital media platforms like Google, Facebook etc. have also started news services/channels […] [The IT] Rules require that such entities, which primarily enable the transmission of news and current affairs content, shall follow certain due diligence and the Code of Ethics as prescribed.”

Call with Australian Prime Minister

The MPs also asked for details from the telephone call that happened between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison on the subject. The IT Ministry , however, did not offer any details about the call.

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The MPs wanted details about the call between Morrison and Modi that happened on February 18, 2021, where they reportedly discussed Australia’s News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code. Dhotre’s reply did not provide for any details, other than acknowledging that the call indeed had happened.

Copyright Act and media

 The MPs’ final question was about whether India Copyright Act has provisions that deal with this subject. They asked “whether Indian copyright Act has provisions governing the freshly evolving relationship between tech platforms and news publishers and if so, the details thereof and if not, the steps taken by the Government in this regard.”

Dhotre’s reply referred to Section 65A(1) and 65B of the Copyright Act, which deal with “protection of technological measures” and “protection of rights management information”, respectively. Once again, the reply did not elaborate any more than that.

Why this is important

Australia has famously led an offensive the two Big Tech firms, Facebook and Google, with its News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code. The code is the brainchild of the country’ antitrust watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Among other things, the code forced Google and Facebook to enter into arbitration with news publishers to decide a price for their content.

The idea is that the regulator felt publishers were not getting a fair bargain. Internet giants were able to feature news content on their platforms, but this did not necessarily translate into increased ad revenues for the publishers. “This imbalance has resulted in news media businesses accepting less favourable terms for the inclusion of news on digital platform services than they would otherwise agree to,” the watchdog had said.

Both Facebook and Google were opposed to the idea, initially threatening to completely stop featuring news content on their platforms, downplaying its importance on their businesses. After several months, Google relented and struck a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and other such publishers. Facebook stayed defiant for a few days, during which it restricted all news content in Australia, but came on board after the government agreed to amend some parts of the Code. Earlier this week, Facebook, too, signed a deal with News Corp.

While Australia is indeed where the most amount of discussion has happened on this subject, it is not an outlier. The larger impact of Google, Facebook and tech platforms in general have had on the media industry has been contemplated by many countries in the recent past. In the US, Facebook and Google have been accused of being the reason for declining revenues of news publishers due to their advertising revenues. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal had grilled Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the company’s advertising business and its impact on newspapers in a hearing in 2019.

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Last year, France’s competition regulator forced Google to negotiate with publishers to pay them for news snippets it shows in search results. In 2014, Spain had passed a law that led to Google no longer offering Google News in that country. The same year, Axel Springer, one of Germany’s largest publishers, got Google to stop showing snippets from its articles, only to reverse the decision after it led to a drop in traffic.

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