It would have been difficult to envisage 15 years ago the changes that the arrival of the digital platforms made to our society. These changes have been rapid for both consumers and businesses. Many of these changes have been positive and enhanced the welfare of consumers. They have provided individuals with ready access to information and the ability to connect with family, friends and groups to support each other in ways they may not have been able to before. They have also allowed more efficient and effective advertising, connecting businesses with consumers who want to purchase their products and services.
Despite the magnitude of the changes, there has not been significant reflection on the implications and consequences of the business models of digital platforms for competition, consumers, and society. Until recently, there has also been little reflection on the responsibilities of digital platforms in the markets in which they operate.
In Australia, and in other jurisdictions, wide-ranging questions are being asked about the role and impact of digital platforms, stretching from alleged anti-competitive conduct to privacy concerns, and from disparity in media regulation to copyright issues. Further issues range from deep concerns over disinformation and harmful content, to the scope and scale of user information collected by platforms, and to the risk of exploitation of consumer vulnerabilities.
This Report looks specifically at the impact of digital platforms on: consumers, businesses using platforms to advertise to and reach customers, and news media businesses that also use the platforms to disseminate their content. As directed by the Government in the Terms of Reference, the Report has a particular focus on the impact of digital platforms on the choice and quality of news and journalism.
The ubiquity of the Google and Facebook platforms has placed them in a privileged position. They act as gateways to reaching Australian consumers and they are, in many cases, critical and unavoidable partners for many Australian businesses, including news media businesses. Dominant firms, of course, have a special responsibility that smaller, less significant businesses do not have. The opaque operations of digital platforms and their presence in inter-related markets mean it is difficult to determine precisely what standard of behaviour these digital platforms are meeting.
For many news media businesses, the expanded reach and the reduced production costs offered by digital platforms have come at a significant price. For traditional print (now print/online) media businesses in particular, the rise of the digital platforms has marked a continuation of the fall in advertising revenue that began with the loss of classified advertising revenue in the early days of the internet. Without this advertising revenue, many print/online news media businesses have struggled to survive and have reduced their provision of news and journalism. New digital-only publications have not replaced what has been lost and many news media businesses are still searching for a viable business model for the provision of journalism online. The impact of this reduction in advertising revenue is most evident in relation to local and regional news providers, which do not have the large potential audience of metropolitan and national titles.
The profound impact of digital platforms on media markets requires careful consideration. News and journalism generate important benefits for society through the production and dissemination of knowledge, the exposure of corruption, and holding governments and other decision makers to account. While recognising the important function that public broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Special Broadcasting Service Corporation (SBS), perform in providing news and journalism across Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (the ACCC) considers that commercial news media businesses perform a central role in providing journalism and contributing to media plurality.
The ACCC’s research has highlighted concerns with the reduced production of particular types of news and journalism, including local government and local court reporting, which are important for the healthy functioning of the democratic process. There is not yet any indication of a business model that can effectively replace the advertiser model, which has historically funded the production of these types of journalism in Australia.