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UK proposes fair-play rules for tech platforms’ use of news

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Big tech firms with “significant bargaining power” will have to agree to new fair play rules designed to improve competition online in the UK.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and Ofcom have published joint advice for the government which proposes a new regime designed to curb the power of big tech platforms.

As well as smaller competitors online, the rules could help to bolster the UK’s newspapers and other publishers by providing a framework for fair financial terms for publishers’ content where this is hosted by the largest platforms with significant market power.

The proposals consist of legally-binding obligations on the biggest tech firms which provide clarity about how they should behave when dealing with consumers and businesses, including publishers.

In the event of a dispute between a platform and a publisher about the application of a code, the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) would have a role in deciding whether a contract or given behaviour by the firm was compliant.

The DMU was created in April last year, with the aim of boosting online competition for smaller players, as well as giving users more choice, control over their data, and ultimately fair prices.

As well as more traditional enforcement powers to ensure compliance, the DMU “should be given a backstop enforcement power to impose binding arbitration to ensure code breaches do not persist for long periods and incentivise swift resolutions,” the CMA said.

The new code is expected to sit alongside other initiatives designed to improve competition, such as mandating that different services work together, or that consumers are given choice as opposed to being defaulted to the same firm’s supporting product.

In 2020, Australia introduced rules to force firms like Facebook and Google to pay news outlets for their content. While Google initially threatened to pull out of the country over the rules, the Australian parliament called its bluff and around 30 deals between media organisations and Big Tech have been struck since the rules were introduced.

The government’s proposals have a broader focus than the rules followed in Australia and it is hoped that codes of conduct for the biggest tech firms will shape their behaviour and reduce the imbalance of bargaining power across a range of digital markets.

Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: “Online platforms and news publishers play a vital role in how we read and understand what’s going on in the world, which is why it is only right that news outlets are treated fairly by platforms that use and share their content.

“Our advice published today clearly sets out how the Digital Markets Unit could create a more level playing field between platforms and publishers. This includes ensuring platforms are more transparent about how their algorithms work and setting out the steps that could be taken where there are disagreements between companies about payments.”

Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom chief executive, said: “Having a wide range of news sources and opinions is the cornerstone of our democracy, values and society. Today marks an important step towards securing a fair outcome in the relationship between online platforms and news publishers.”

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