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Monopoly, ‘unfair control of Google & FB’, fake news: TRAI flags challenges for digital media

TRAI's consultation paper states media has changed, not just in terms of consumption but also ownership. It suggests a regulatory body to check market monopoly.

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New Delhi: In a recent consultation paper, India’s telecom regulator has highlighted concerns of monopoly in the digital media market, unfair control of tech giants like Google and Facebook over digital advertising revenue, and the spiralling problem of fake news content. 

The paper, released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), released on 12 April, is now open for public feedback. 

In particular, the paper points out ‘cross-media ownership’, a phenomenon under which a corporate house comes to hold multiple media houses, leading to a monopolistic market. 

The paper states the media has changed in the last few years — not just in terms of consumption but also from the standpoint of ownership — and suggests a regulatory body to check market monopoly. 

The paper cites the case of Jio Fiber as an example of cross-ownership. JioFiber is a high-speed internet service offered by Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, a telecommunications company and a subsidiary of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries. 

According to the paper, Jio Fiber’s decision to bundle OTT platforms like Disney+ Hotstar, Zee5, and Amazon Prime Video along with its telecom and internet services could lead to not just a monopoly, but also challenges in media regulation and checking fake news. 

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Problem facing print publications

The TRAI has also highlighted the steady decline in revenues for print publications, and mentions their concerns about the monopoly of Google and Facebook over news content. 

The paper quotes accounting company KPMG’s report on the steady decline of print media revenues since 2014 — the data, TRAI’s consultation paper says, shows that the growth of these revenues was negative 9 per cent in 2019-20, compared to the digital media’s positive 17 per cent.  

This shortfall, the paper said, came despite digital innovations such as e-papers and creating digital platforms. 

Additionally, the TRAI quotes print publications as having complained about the monopoly of tech giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Instagram over advertising revenues. Print publications accuse these organisations of unequal distribution of advertising revenues and unfairly profiting from their news content.

According to the paper, print publishers have claimed that “these tech giants are making money by advertising on the strength of their news content though Facebook and Google claim that they are basically helping publishers by directing traffic to their websites”. 

Given the role of tech giants in pushing out digital content, the paper moots a regulatory body to enforce revenue sharing in digital media advertising.

The TRAI also suggests a mechanism to help understand how public consumption is determined for the print media. It points out that while broadcast channels have a way of determining who is watching their content, when and how much, through BARC data, for newspapers, it is not possible to determine how many articles a reader is interested in every day.

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Monopoly and media biases 

The media, the TRAI says, is a “capital-intensive sector” — a sphere that requires large investments for its survival. As a result, investors with specific political leanings or corporate interests could affect the media’s advertising revenue.

“Media interests of corporate entities have been justified in fulfilling the funding requirements of this sector,” the paper says. “In a market economy, the right to invest in a line of business is the choice of any business entity. However, in such a scenario, a quid-pro-quo guaranteeing favourable coverage to the controlling entity can never be ruled out.”

Therefore, there is a “need of ensuring the independence of media from political and commercial influences”, the paper says. 

The fake news phenomenon

The consultation paper notes with concern the increased role fake news content plays in shaping public opinion since the rise of social media. 

“The horrific effects of fake news have been manifested before the society in the recent incidents of mob lynching, riots, and sacrilege cases,” the paper says.

Currently, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting enlists the help of intelligence agencies and nodal officers of some ministries to help identify fake news online and on TV news channels.

TRAI says in its paper that with a surge of digital media organisations, there is a “lack of accuracy in some online players” over their content.

“There have been a number of cases of fake/curated videos being viral on social media platforms,” TRAI says in its paper. “Such fake/curated contents sometimes lead to serious repercussions.”  

The TRAI also flags the lack of authenticity of digital media content that it claims “challenges and sometimes contradicts the traditional media organisations, leading to a state of confusion and misinformation in society”.

For context, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has banned 78 YouTube ‘news’ channels so far, citing security concerns.

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Understanding ‘relevant market’

Although the paper flags its concerns about market monopoly for the English media market, it notes that this trend may apply to regional media with fewer competitors. 

“For a person who knows only Telugu language, only Telugu publications and Telugu television channels are the most relevant and not the entire set of publications and television channels available in the country,” the paper argues. “With a view to identifying actual competitors in various media markets, it would be appropriate to invoke the concept of ‘relevant market’.”

It would be necessary to define “market” to understand “concentration of market”, the paper says.

Who’s regulating?

The paper says that in India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) is one of the market regulators that “prohibits anti-competitive agreements and abuse of dominant position”.

The body, the paper says, has its limitations: Although it ensures that mergers and acquisitions do not unfairly lean toward fulfilling private interests, the body does not focus on “capturing cross-holdings and direct/ indirect control of different organisations by a common entity”, the paper says.

The growth of transnational organisations — companies that own shares and corporate entities in more than two countries — in India’s media space makes it imperative to build a new system to “view restrictions based on control by a company that may be easily subverted by creating another set of companies by the same entity”.

This means that there should be a mechanism to help stop corporate houses from cornering a market not only by themselves but through their subsidiaries, the paper says.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

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