I’ve been working on the CMCR Project for a decade. It emerged from the 30 country International Media Concentration Project led by Eli Noam at Columbia University. Culminating in the 2016 book he edited, entitled ‘Who owns the world’s media?’. This year, we launched a new and expanded venture, the Global Media and Internet Concentration Project. Funded with $2.5 million from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Roughly 40 scholars studying the communications, internet and media industries in 40 countries.
The expanded emphasis foregrounds the rise of new actors like the digital platforms (GAFAM), has a dozen external partners drawn from research centres. UNESCO, Stats Canada, ISOC and the IIC, amongst others. Our website will be up soon, and our intention is that it will provide a wide-ranging resource for policymakers and anyone interested in media market data. (Meanwhile, reports from the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project can be read at www.cmcrp.org, with tenth anniversary editions available in the next few weeks)
They’re not media companies in the traditional sense, but they are similar to telecoms companies in terms of their scale, scope and gatekeeping power. The fact that digital platforms are different from media and telecoms companies shouldn’t stop us from drawing on regulatory experiences in communications and antitrust. And selectively applying what we know from these areas. That said, I wish we would stop hyper-ventilating over platforms. There is a tendency to place all of the world’s woes at their doorstep. It risks giving a free pass to equally significant sources of power in other areas of communications and media.
The good news is that regulators across the globe are beginning to hold hands, and learn from each other. There is a recognition, as we’ve finally seen with the ruling in the Google shopping case (in which the European Court found in favour of the European Commission’s fine) that trying to regulate behaviour with headline-grabbing fines doesn’t work. ‘Policy theatre’ is sometimes a necessary part of achieving policy change. The ‘big box’ issues, like online harms, attract a great deal of attention.
But you also have to be prepared to do the boring work of rational policymaking. The focus needs to move from regulating behaviour to regulating the operations and structure of the ‘very large platforms’. For example in Google’s case there has to be a separation of search from advertising. Facebook should be restricted in the sharing of data between its different social media entities, as it has been by the Bundeskartellamt in Germany since 2018. GDPR is also an important part of demonstrating that the unregulated market experiment is over.
I like what I see in the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act (proposed new EU regulation), especially the separation of competition and content regulation. I think it’s good to have ‘bright lines’, clear and unequivocal rules. Where the platforms are defined through revenue, users and market cap. It’s also specific in its scope – it’s not trying to regulate the whole internet, just the largest players.
In Canada, the C-10 bill, an amendment to the broadcasting act, was too sprawling and left decisions on defining which services would be covered and which excluded to the regulator. That was always going to fall on its face, and it did. The Australian legislation is interesting but flawed. It’s a bargaining code, requiring digital platforms to ‘play nicely’ with the other commercial players. But it does nothing to curb the power of the platforms themselves. It’s possible that it’s a halfway house, as subsequent ACCC inquiries appear to be taking a tougher line.
I think that’s unlikely to work. As I said, you need ‘bright lines’ around the structure of companies and their operations, not codes of principle. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, the companies will use their considerable resources to circumvent the rules.
Rules on ‘common carriage’ have been around for 130 years and for good reason. Once you blur the lines between the carrier and the content you encourage anti-competitive behaviour. Equal access is as important to the internet as it was to the original telephone system and there is no problem in transposing the rule. On this, Canada represents the gold standard. I’m very concerned by what’s happening in the US. You don’t want a situation where the rules change with each administration, as has been the case for the last 25 years.
There are some real positives, but some dark clouds. We have large companies that are resistant to public obligations, and committed to creating a communications environment that is at odds with the functioning of democratic societies. Traditional, advertising funded media has been fighting for a share of a sinking pool since the financial crisis. Subscription and paid-for media are now four or five times larger in most countries. Growth in Pay TV is flat, but offset by the growth in online video.
We’re seeing a renaissance in music and the emergence of a huge market in digital games and other app services. The interesting thing is that we have good data going back the 80s, and some less good going back to the 50s, that consumers’ spending on ‘cultural goods’. Everything from TV, cinema and theatre to sports, books and music – remains constant at between 1 and 2 per cent of per capita income. The market is a zero sum game, a reality that the large platforms and all media players will have to come to terms with eventually.
In this latest interview, we speak to Dwayne Winseck, Professor, School of Journalism and Communication and Director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project and the Global Media & Internet Concentration Project
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