Madrid — More than 80 Spanish media organizations are filing a $600 million lawsuit against Meta over what they say is unfair competition in a case that could be repeated across the European Union.

The lawsuit is the latest front in a battle by legacy media against the dominance of tech giants at a time when the traditional media industry is in economic decline.

Losing revenue to Silicon Valley companies means less money to invest in investigative journalism or fewer resources to fight back against disinformation.

The case is the latest example of media globally seeking compensation from internet and social media platforms for use of their content.

The Association of Media of Information (AMI), a consortium of Spanish media companies, claimed in the lawsuit that Meta allegedly violated EU data protection rules between 2018 and 2023, Reuters reported.

The newspapers argue that Meta’s “massive” and “systematic” use of its Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp platform gives it an unfair advantage of designing and offering personalized advertisements, which they say constitutes unfair competition.

Irene Lanzaco, director general of AMI, told VOA it estimated the actions of Meta had cost Spanish newspapers and magazines $539.2 million in lost income between 2018 and 2023.

“This loss of income has meant it is more difficult for the media to practice journalism, to pay its journalists, to mount investigations and to hold politicians to account for corruption,” she said.

“It means that society becomes more polarized, and people become less involved with their communities if they do not know what is going on.”

Analysts say this is an “innovative” strategy by legacy media against tech giants that is more designed to engage people outside the news business.

Until now, traditional media cases against Silicon Valley centered on the theft of intellectual property from the news business, but the Spanish suit made a claim related to alleged theft of personal data.

“Previously, all the cases that legacy media has brought have been about the piracy of intellectual property — ‘We report the news, and these people are putting it on their websites without paying for it,’” Kathy Kiely, the Lee Hills chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism, told VOA.

“But what this case is about is that these social media platforms have access to a lot of information about the audience to gain unfair advantage in advertising,” she said.

The lawsuit was filed with a commercial court in Madrid, reported Reuters, which saw the court papers.

Matt Pollard, a spokesman for Meta Platforms, told VOA, “We have not received the legal papers on this case, so we cannot comment. All we know about it is what we have read in the media.”

The complainants include Prisa, which publishes Spain’s left-wing daily El País; Vocento, owner of ABC, a right-wing daily; and the Barcelona-based conservative daily La Vanguardia.

They claim that Meta used personal data obtained without the express consent from clients in violation of the EU General Data Protection Regulation in force since May 2018, which demands that any website requests authorization to keep and use personal data.

“Of course in any other EU country, the same legal procedure could be initiated,” as it concerns an alleged violation of European regulations,” Nicolas González Cuellar, a lawyer representing AMI, told Reuters.

Kiely said the Spanish case may engage the broader public and policymakers, in Europe and beyond.

“[This legal case] introduces a new strategy. It is not just about the survival of the local news organization. It is about privacy,” she said. “This engages people outside the news business in a way that piracy of the intellectual property does not.”

The lawsuit is the latest attempt by media organizations who have struggled to make tech giants pay fair fees for using and sharing their content.

The legal battle comes as the Reuters Institute’s 2023 Digital News Report found that tech platforms like Meta and Google had become a “running sore” for news publishers over the past decade.

“Google and Facebook [now Meta] at their height accounted for just under half of online traffic to news sites,” the report said.  “Although the so-called ‘duopoly’ remains hugely consequential, our report shows how this platform position is becoming a little less concentrated in many markets, with more providers competing.”

It added, “Digital audio and video are bringing new platforms into play, while some consumers have adopted less toxic and more private messaging networks for communications.”

Spanish media scored a victory against Alphabet’s Google News service, which the government shut down in 2014 before its reopening in 2022 under new legislation allowing media outlets to negotiate fees directly with the tech giant.

Last month, Google and the Canadian government reached an agreement in their dispute over the Online News Act, which would see Google continue to use Canadian news online in return for the company making annual payments to news companies of about $100 million.

Radio Canada and CBC News reported last month that the Canadian federal government estimated earlier this year that Google’s compensation should amount to about $172 million, while Google estimated this value at $100 million.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the agreement was “very good news.”

“After months of holding strong, of demonstrating our commitment to local journalism, to strong independent journalists getting paid for their work … Google has agreed to properly support journalists, including local journalism,” he said.

Google said it would not have a mandatory negotiation model imposed on it for talks with the media in Canada. Instead, it preferred to deal with a single media group that would represent all media, allowing the group to limit its arbitration risk.

Google had threatened to block Canadian news content on its platforms because of the legislation but did not.

In contrast, Meta ended its talks with the Canadian government last summer and stopped distributing Canadian news on Facebook and Instagram.

Last month, the Reuters Institute’s 2023 report said that 29% of Canadians used Facebook for news. Around 11% used Facebook Messenger, and 10% used Instagram for the same purpose.