The European Parliament is next week expected to decide on what is considered to be a crucial proposal obliging internet giants like Google, YouTube and Facebook to pay media outlets for third-party content they now use for free.

Divergent opinions have been expressed on the proposal, ranging from serious concern it might lead to the internet no longer being free to fears that the already ailing media will go belly up unless it is compensated for the content it pays for.

Those pushing the stand of the media argue it is not right for the likes of Facebook or Google to make loads of money from revenue generated thanks to editorial content, which, although they carry is actually written by journalists paid by publishing houses.

Sammy Ketz, an award-winning war correspondent of French news agency AFP, has taken up the cudgels for the press. “Facebook made $16 billion in profits in 2017 and Google $12.7 billion. They simply have to pay their dues. That way, the media will survive and the internet titans will be contributing to the diversity and freedom of the press they claim to support,” he wrote in an appeal to members of the European Parliament.

He insists that a directive on the so-called ‘neighbouring rights’ would not threaten people’s ability to access the internet for free, as objectors argue. “No. Free access to the web will endure because the internet giants, which now use editorial content for free, can reimburse the media without asking consumers to pay,” Mr Ketz remarks.

The European Commission is on record saying individuals will not be affected but critics note that is not clear from the legal text.

The proposal would require anyone using snippets of journalistic online content to first obtain a licence from the publisher. This, it has been pointed out, implies that social media platforms, news aggregators and fact-checking sites will need to pay if they share news snippets, say, a headline and blurb of an article.

There are different interests involved and any measures decided upon must be the result of a fine balancing act. The right of the media to be compensated for the reliable and diverse editorial content it produces must be respected as much as Facebook’s or Google’s right to be assured of adequate revenue for the platforms they are offering.

The survival of both the media and the internet giants is crucial but more essential is the need for the people to have their right to freedom of expression thoroughly respected and safeguarded. That includes the right to receive information. Hence, the press and the digital platforms must co-exist, ensuring people will always get the truth, rather than fake news, and through as many media as possible, all over the world.

News-gathering and dissemination is a very expensive operation and, rather than overreact and engage in a war of attrition, both sides should put their heads together.

Perhaps they can agree to set up a fund, administered by the European Commission with the involvement of all stakeholders, to which the internet giants can contribute a small part of their profits to ensure their raw material in the information field keeps coming.

Everybody will gain from a fair digital platform. A pyrrhic victory will serve nobody.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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