Online platforms are clearly engines for growth and innovation in the digital economy. While we all routinely take advantage of their many benefits for services, information, entertainment and social engagement, it’s also clear that a small number of platforms exercise huge influence over how content is organized and served.
The relationship between these gatekeepers and their business partners is frequently imbalanced and falls short of the transparency and trust that users deserve.
In Europe, this situation is coming under the scrutiny of the European Commission in the form of draft legislation designed to redress the imbalance of bargaining power between online platforms and their business users.
For the public service media (PSM) organizations in the EU that we represent, this legislation could improve lack of transparency in platform practices, notably criteria for search and ranking, changes to terms and conditions, consumer data and resolving disputes.
We welcome the draft legislation. But we also feel it does not go far enough. We want to see it strengthened in key areas.
Among other things, we want:
Why does this matter? The reality is that millions of us turn to an online platform for our content. And when we turn on a SMART TV or view online content with an Amazon Firestick, the first thing we see is what the platform serves us. You can bet it’ll be enticing. And, if the platform in question also creates its own content, it’s likely that will get centre stage.
While, in some countries, there is legislation to ensure PSM occupies prominent spots on EPGs, there are no such safeguards online. As a consequence, prominence is controlled by whoever owns the platform and can be sold to the highest bidder.
For young audiences, this online state of play distorts access to content that carries the high values of PSM. In a world of infinite choice, young people are making their own rules and the balance between on-demand and scheduled viewing has already tipped for young people with, for example, over half of 16-34 year olds’ viewing time now online in the UK. When this viewing is via third-party platforms, PSM organizations need a transparent and fair playing field to engage online.
Which brings me to what, in my view, is the arena where we have to step up most forcefully – the vital contribution of independent, trusted, impartial news with its rightful place at the centre of European discourse. A pillar of modern democracies and a vital tool in holding governments to account, the facts prove that in countries where PSM is stronger, there is more trust in media as a whole and greater press freedom.
65% of online users do not go directly to a news source but mainly access content via a ‘side-door’ such as search, social media and aggregators. In the midst of a battle with the continued spread of misinformation and ‘fake news’, holding platforms to account has never been more important than it is now.
There is no denying that the unprecedented choice we have is a benefit for citizens. I truly welcome competition and I believe in our ability to keep competing creatively with the best in the world. But a ‘choice’ between the output of one multi-national conglomerate and another is actually no choice at all.
These media giants have their own global, commercial motivations – which is perfectly fine. It has propelled them to much success and innovation. But they will never serve audiences with the same values as PSM.
Our society is enriched by PSM content and anything that threatens citizens' access to that content must be viewed as a threat to our democracies.
While we welcome the aims of the new EU legislation, it would be a shame if legislators missed this opportunity to create a robust European policy that harnesses the benefits of the internet to deliver high quality, trusted services to citizens and protects the vital role PSM plays at the heart of our respective nations.