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Facebook and Google Need to Be Regulated, Says British News Industry

March 9, 2017, 11:14 PM UTC
#CDUdigital Conference In Berlin
BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 12: A visitor uses a mobile phone in front of the Facebook logo at the #CDUdigital conference on September 12, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. The world's largest social media network was launched by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard College roommates in 2004, and had its initial public offering in February 2012. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
Photograph by Adam Berry — Getty Images

Britain’s newspaper publishers have filed a complaint with a government committee looking into the problem of “fake news,” and said regulators need to look into Google and Facebook’s dominance in the media and advertising industries.

The group says the country’s communications and competition authorities should regulate the two tech giants because of their influence in the marketplace, including potentially forcing them to pay newspapers a licensing fee for using their content.

The News Media Association, which represents more than 1,100 British newspapers, filed a letter in response to an inquiry that was launched in January by the House of Commons committee on culture, media and sport, looking into the spread of fake news and what can be done about it.

In the letter, the NMA said that fake news “is a growing cause for concern around the world, with implications for an informed electorate and democracy itself,” and that many of the sites and publishers who produce it rely on “gaming the algorithms Facebook, Google and other networks and platforms use to connect their users with news stories.”

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According to the alliance, Britain has not been impacted as much by fake news as the United States and some other countries, because “we still have a robust news media sector in this country.” However, the NMA warns that Facebook and Google’s powerful duopoly is putting that at risk.

The group’s letter calls on Ofcom—the UK’s communications regulator—and the country’s Competition and Markets Authority to “examine the impacts of Google, Facebook and other platforms on the media landscape and to evaluate the importance of news media content to their business models.”

The alliance asks the government to conduct “a coherent review of the regulatory status of Google and Facebook, and whether they should continue to be considered mere intermediaries. Such a review should examine what additional responsibilities they should bear, without creating wider liabilities or placing new restrictions on the traditional media.”

One option, the group says, would be to require Facebook and Google to pay license fees to publishers for the content that they distribute through their platforms—money that newspapers could use for fact-checking and other tools to stamp out fake news.

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“The NMA would be happy to explore licensing schemes, potentially via NLA Media Access, to ensure that publishers’ investment in news is adequately recognized,” the letter states. NLA Media Access is a privately-owned company in the UK that collects licensing fees from clipping services who republish excerpts of articles from newspapers and other publishers.

There have been attempts in a number of European countries to make Google pay for the short excerpts of news stories it carries on its Google News site, but most of those efforts have failed.

After Germany passed a law requiring such fees, Google stopped linking to German newspaper and other media sites, most of which saw a dramatic downturn in traffic. When Spain passed a similar law, Google simply shut down the Spanish version of Google News altogether.

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In addition to suggesting the imposition of licensing fees, the NMA letter also calls on Britain’s competition regulator to conduct an “investigation into the digital advertising market to examine the dominant position of Google and Facebook, the impact they have had on the media landscape and implications for consumers and advertisers.”

According to the NMA, between them Facebook and Google account for three-quarters of the display ad market in the US and 53 per cent of the market in the UK. The two companies are expected to take in more than 70% of all money spent on display advertising in the UK by 2020, the group says.