The freedom of the press is currently under heavy pressure here in Sweden and in other countries. “News deserts” are increasingly large geographic areas with no local or regional journalism at all. In these news deserts, the powers that be are not scrutinised and people’s opportunities to inform themselves about what is happening around them and exercise their democratic rights as members of society are severely limited.
There are several reasons for this, but the most significant is that the most common income source for news publications over the past decades — advertising revenue — is no longer viable. This is not because of any lack of demand for news. It is because the vast majority of growth in digital advertisement money ends up in the hands of Facebook and Google. Media institutions have been working hard to adapt and find alternatives.
One alternative to advertisements is subscription revenue. The advantage of this model is that it sets the bar high for newspapers to build close and trusting relationships with their readers. Various types of subscriptions and payment solutions reduce the focus on anonymous clicks and provide higher value for content that inspires readers to keep coming back.
The digital giants Google, Facebook, and Apple currently have entirely unique positions in the public sphere. Google is a gigantic company in its own right and also owns YouTube. Facebook owns both Instagram and WhatsApp. These companies, which may be the most powerful in the history of the world, function like the very infrastructure of democracy in many ways.
The larger these companies get, the more crucial it becomes that their products and ways of doing business are compatible with democracy.
In recent years, we have seen an increasingly intense debate about social platforms and their involvement in scandals regarding privacy, hate, disinformation, and propaganda. These discussions have frequently centered on Facebook and YouTube.
Apple has tried to brand itself as a more ethical company when it comes to data and privacy issues. However, from the perspective of the freedom of the press, the company now poses a threat as great as Facebook and Google.
Many of our readers use Apple products. They read newspapers and get news from apps on their smartphones. In Sweden, the iPhone commands a 48% market share. This gives Apple enormous power over the relationship between newspapers and their readers. Unfortunately, we have seen increasing signs of abuse of this position of power.
Before, it was possible for us and other newspapers to both charge for our products and build a relationship with our readers and users via the app store, but Apple has shot down such solutions in the past two years. Instead, the company takes 15%-30% of the revenue from all digital content sold via apps. Just as some of our newspapers are beginning to find new digital business models, Apple is using its dominant position to impose this “Apple tax.”
However, the even more serious issue is that Apple does not let us have our own relationship with our readers via our apps. Our data and customer relationships are being hijacked by Apple. This makes it impossible for us to identify who has subscribed via the apps, thus preventing us from following up with offers, information, or questions about what they would like to read more about.
Another major issue is Apple’s arbitrariness, unpredictability, and lack of transparency. A new feature in the app, initially approved by Apple, was later rejected even though it has not changed. Apple’s rules are difficult to understand, and Apple’s interpretation of its own terms of service varies.
A couple of weeks ago, Spotify reported Apple to the European Commission for abuse of its dominant position. We support this process and hope that Brussels will treat the issue with the utmost seriousness. Apple’s response to Spotify — that Spotify has made a lot of money by being in the app store — does not apply to us. We have built our digital positions on our own, completely independent of Apple.
These days, Apple acts like a capricious feudal lord who either fails to understand, or simply does not care about, the consequences of its actions. If the company is serious about making a positive contribution to society, it should at least try to avoid sabotaging the freedom of the press.
We fear neither competition nor change. But the rules must be transparent and comprehensible. If the companies dominating the digital infrastructure of the world do not realise that they too must take social responsibility, then policymakers must step in instead.