What is at stake?
The Internet is a key space for accessing content and information. Alongside their radio and TV channels, public service media (PSM) in Europe have developed their own trusted online spaces enabling audiences to access high-quality and diverse content.
In addition, PSM rely on third-party platforms to reach their audiences, especially younger generations. As PSM, we want to ensure that audiences can access and find content of public value online irrespective of whether such content is offered through our own platforms or through a social media network, news aggregator, or search engine.
Global platforms have become content gatekeepers. Although such platforms may render access to content easier than ever before, they may also engage in practices that raise artificial barriers to the free flow of information.
Platforms also increasingly curating content. They are no longer passive or neutral carriers or hosts; they take content-related decisions (often with the help of algorithms) by organizing, ranking, labelling, personalizing, monetizing or otherwise moderating or commercializing content for public use. Despite this editorial-like role, platform operators only have a very limited responsibility and liability for the content they distribute, in contrast to media which have editorial responsibility and liability for their content.
Appropriate policy measures are needed to create a level playing field and ensure that platforms’ practices are transparent, fair and accountable. We also need to ensure that platforms’ responsibilities are in line with their ability to harm citizens, and that their actions fully respect human rights such as freedom of expression and the media.
Ensure a transparent and fair online playing field
Given their market power, major online platforms could engage in harmful practices which only serve their business interests. The 2019 EU Regulation on platform-to-business (P2B) practices is a first step in the direction of more fairness in platforms’ trading practices. It establishes obligations requiring platforms to be more transparent about a number of issues, including how they decide to rank content and whether they grant preferential treatment to their own services. Though the implementation of the P2B Regulation may address certain concerns arising from the significant information asymmetries that are currently pervasive in the platform economy, transparency alone may not be enough to promote fairness in P2B relations. We therefore strongly encourage the European Commission and the Observatory on the Online Platform Economy to monitor the situation closely and gather evidence on potentially harmful practices. The EU needs to be ready to take further action considering the fast-moving nature of the market and the impact of harmful platform practices on competition and innovation.
Moreover, a process of reform of the EU (and national) competition rules has recently been launched. We welcome the initiatives that the European Commission and national authorities have recently undertaken to ensure that competition enforcement is fit for the digital age. To the extent that it takes account of the specific characteristics of the markets where platforms operate (e.g. the role of data in driving business, the natural tendency to concentration that data-driven markets have), competition enforcement can go a long way towards levelling the playing field.
However, competition enforcement alone is not sufficient to address concerns arising from the imbalance in bargaining power that currently exists. To make digital markets fair, ex ante regulation is needed. We welcome the Commission’s recent initiatives indicating that it explores ex ante rules to facilitate access to data and to address concerns arising from 'self-preferencing'.
Shed transparency on platforms’ data usage and ensure access to data
Understanding what content or service was consumed via online platforms and how it was consumed allows PSM to gain a better understanding of audiences’ needs and expectations. Moreover, understanding how citizens interact with PSM content offered through online platforms allows PSM to tailor their offers to the preferences of the citizens they serve. We believe that regulation is needed to ensure PSM access to data that is generated by or related to services or content business users offer on online platforms. We also believe that regulation facilitating access to data can be compatible with the applicable data protection rules. This solution would respect users’ personal data and boost competition in digital markets.
Public value content needs to be easy to access and easy to find
Public service media play a central role for democracy by providing a means to inform citizens, shape public opinion and offer a window to the world. In an online environment, platforms tend to organise and present content at their own discretion. There is a risk that platform operators will focus on driving viewers towards content that suits their commercial interests to the detriment of programmes in the public interest. Prominence – or findability as it is often called – is a crucial principle to ensure citizens are sufficiently aware of public service content and other content of particular value to society.
As acknowledged in the P2B Regulation, to promote fairness and uphold citizens’ trust in content online, the service or content’s source including its branding needs to be clearly visible or recognized on the platform. The risk of poor or no attribution of brands is increasingly relevant with the use of voice assistants.
Protect freedom of expression and respect editorial integrity of the media
Radio and television continue to be the most trusted media in Europe. Audiences must be able to rely on the integrity and authenticity of media service providers’ programmes and services, including when they are distributed over third-party online platforms.
Platforms should not be able to exercise additional control over content that is already under a media service provider’s editorial control and subject to specific regulatory standards and oversight.
Such protection is all the more necessary as a counterweight to the spread of disinformation and it will allow media service providers in Europe to continue playing an important democracy-enhancing role in public opinion formation.
Ensure that platforms are held properly accountable
Millions of citizens, not in the least young audiences, turn to an online platform for content. These platforms, whether they are search, social media and news aggregators, are undeniably impacting public opinion today by sorting and selecting news and information. In many cases, the online platforms’ role is not limited to simply hosting content or services and thus cannot be qualified as a purely passive one.
Unlike print and broadcast media, it is left to the intermediaries themselves and so-called community standards set by them to determine how they exercise their role as information intermediaries. Amid the battle with the continued spread of misinformation and misinformation, holding platforms to account has never been more important than it is now. The conduct of such companies should be more transparent. They should be held accountable, with effective rules to protect public interest, including free expression and quality content.
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