Last year, the Australian government presented Google and Facebook with an ultimatum: if the companies wanted to continue to allow users to link to news articles, they would be required to compensate news organizations. The Australian plan called for the creation of a mandated code that would create a process to determine the price to be paid for the links. Facebook’s response made it clear that if that was the choice – links with mandated payments or no links – it would choose the latter and block Australian news sharing from its service. While some described this as a threat (including Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault) or a bluff, it turns out the company was serious.
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Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it plans to stop allowing publishers and users to share news on both Facebook and Instagram in Australia. The decision came after months of public debate and private negotiations on potential payments from the social media giant to news organizations. When the Internet platforms and the news organizations led by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (by the far the largest media organization in Australia) were unable to arrive at a deal, the Australian government and its regulator announced that it would legislate a solution by requiring Google and Facebook to pay publishers for content posted by its users on its site. The Facebook decision to block news sharing on its platforms has been described as a “threat” to the government and democracy, leading to supportive op-eds calling on the Australian government to push back against the company. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has denounced the move, stating “the Canadian government stands with our Australian partners and denounces any form of threats.”
There are many serious concerns about Facebook: it is in federal court in a battle over whether it violated Canadian privacy law, its response to potentially misleading political advertising has been inadequate, it has moved too slowly in removing posts that urge violence, it faces antitrust investigations, it has paid billions in penalties for its conduct, and many simply fear it is too powerful. But it is in the right in this battle over news in Australia and the Canadian government would be wrong to emulate the Australian approach.
The Australian copyright community has been shocked by a scandal involving the Copyright Agency, a copyright collective that diverted millions of dollars intended for authors toward a lobbying and advocacy fund designed to fight against potential fair use reforms. The collective reportedly withheld A$15 million in royalties from authors in order to build a war chest to fight against changes to the Australian copyright law. I wrote last month about my experience in Australia, where groups such as the Copyright Agency have engaged in a remarkable effort to mislead policy makers on the state of copyright law in Canada. A former director of the Copyright Agency describes the latest situation as “pathetic” noting that it was outrageous to extract millions from publicly-funded schools for a lobbying fund.
The Australian case is far from an isolated incident. A quick search reveals plenty of examples of legal concerns involving copyright collectives with corruption fears in Kenya and competition law concerns in Italy over the past couple of months as well as recent fines against Spanish collecting societies. In fact, Jonathan Band and Brandon Butler published an eye-opening article several years ago chronicling an astonishing array of examples of corruption, mismanagement, lack of transparency, and negative effects for both creators and users from copyright collectives around the world.
Last month, I traveled to Australia and New Zealand as part of a group of experts to discuss copyright fair use and fair dealing. The trip included several public talks, meetings with government officials, a book launch on Reimagining Copyright, and the chance to discuss copyright policy directly with publishers, educators, and librarians. Videos of some of the panels are available online, including a New Zealand forum on copyright and innovation and a panel on comparative copyright limitations and exceptions at the Australian Digital Alliance annual conference.
Among the most notable aspects of the trip was the revelation of efforts by publishers and copyright collectives to mislead policy makers on the state of copyright law in Canada. While not everyone is buying it – this keynote from the Australian Productivity Commission’s Deputy Chair Karen Chester was a mic drop moment that eviscerated the publisher arguments against fair use – the efforts to mislead on the impact of Canadian copyright reform was unmistakable. For example, at one event with many publishers in the audience, I was approached by one representative who told me she was embarrassed by what her company had submitted to the Australian policy process after learning about the reality of the situation in Canada. Similarly, another Australian publisher executive who had spent years with one of Canada’s largest educational publishers, openly acknowledged that fair use and fair dealing had little to do with the challenges faced by the industry.
From the moment that the Liberal government renamed Industry Canada as Innovation, Science, and Economic Development it sent a clear signal that innovation is a top policy priority. Indeed, in recent months Minister Navdeep Bains has repeatedly called for bold policies focused on addressing Canada’s dismal innovation record.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that while the specifics of the Canadian innovation policy have yet to be revealed, a recent Australian government backed study provides a potential roadmap. The Australian Productivity Commission, which functions as an independent “think tank” for the government, released a 600 page draft report in April that proposes a myriad of changes to its intellectual property system.
The government asked the Commission to report back on whether the current legal frameworks “ensure that the intellectual property system provides appropriate incentives for innovation, investment and the production of creative works while ensuring it does not unreasonably impede further innovation, competition, investment and access to goods and services.” The result is a comprehensive report based on hundreds of submissions and consultations representing a broad range of views.