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OPINION: Facebook and Google should pay for the news they use

by Courtney C. Radsch | @courtneyr | Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Friday, 29 January 2021 14:36 GMT

Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, testifies remotely during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election", in Washington, U.S., November 17, 2020. Bill Clark/Pool via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A proposed law in Australia would force Facebook and Google to pay for the news they use to improve their feeds and search results

Courtney C. Radsch, PhD is the advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society and the author of Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt: Digital Dissidence and Political Change

Rampant conspiracy theories, coronavirus disinformation, election interference, and information manipulation on a global scale have proliferated in the toxic environment fostered by Big Tech.

As the coronavirus pandemic has made deathly obvious, reliable, accurate information is a cornerstone of public health as well as democracy. And indeed demand for news is up while trust in news media has never been higher

But the news often doesn’t reach people. It’s drowned out or algorithmically suppressed. And when people get news, they get it through Google Search or their Facebook news feeds, generating revenues for Big Tech at the expense of the publishers who produce the news. 

Broad recognition that Big Tech is chipping away at the viability of the news media and undermining trust in democracy comes even as it pulls in record earnings.

Australia has a solution: force Facebook and Google to pay for the news they use to improve their news feeds and search results. And make their algorithms more transparent.

A proposed law would force the duopoly to pay licensing fees to publishers in the hopes of redistributing some of the revenue generated by the tech behemoths back to the news industry they are accused of destroying. Which feels right, even if it won’t save the news industry.

Australia’s law would also mandate that platforms give media outlets a 28-day heads up about algorithmic changes that affect referral traffic or ranking, which is a nice idea in theory given that tweaks to platform algorithms or priorities can have massive financial and editorial impacts on news organizations, including closures.

This particular provision is impractical given its narrow focus on the larger media outlets that would be covered by this law, but efforts to improve algorithmic transparency more broadly are essential to a healthy information ecosystem.

Several other countries – Belgium, France, Germany, and Spain – have already adopted copyright laws that force Google to pay for news snippets. But licensing is just a feel-good measure, not a panacea.

As much as I want to make Big Tech pay to support journalism, there’s little evidence that licensing requirements have the intended impact, and may even serve to further entrench dominant players in tech and media alike.

Google News pulled out of Spain entirely after imposition of the link tax there, resulting in a two-fold decline in traffic to small publishers. Germany’s publishers gave Google license to use their content for free, which only further entrenched Google’s dominance by putting competing news aggregators, who didn’t get the same deal, out of business

It actually seems like Big Tech is coming around to paying licensing fees to news outlets, especially in the face of more robust regulation. They just don’t want governments making them or telling them how. 

And they definitely do not like the idea of opening up their algorithms to government oversight.

As Google was threatening to shut down Search in Australia, it launched a $1 billion news licensing initiative and inked a deal with French publishers.

And where has Google rolled out its newest PR effort? Countries where they want to head off more invasive competition regulations like Germany, the U.K. and Australia. The same countries where Facebook launched its News Feed tab, which pays participating outlets, last year.

The problem with regulatory approaches based on link taxes and a copyright framework is that they do not get to the root of the problem.

Big Tech has fundamentally reconfigured the economy and information ecosystem. Google and Facebook dictate the attention economy, their algorithms determine what content we see, and they enjoy market dominance in the adtech industry, which makes it virtually impossible for media to generate sufficient revenues or to develop meaningful alternatives.

Google and Facebook dominate the trillion-dollar adtech industry, getting 60% of all digital advertising revenue and control the technological infrastructure, or adtech stack, on which the digital advertising ecosystem is built, and news media are embedded.

Improving transparency of this notoriously opaque market and separating out various services – like ad serving from analytics from distribution-- would help level the playing field and give the media a fighting chance to reclaim a share of the advertising pie.

Proposals to impose a tax targeted ads to fund a trust for civic media and greater transparency about how information is surfaced across the platforms would go further to address news media sustainability and mitigate some of the anti-democratic impacts of the information ecosystem.

In the meantime, if governments want to redistribute some of the economic benefits and power from Big Tech to subsidize the news media (and by extension, democracy), they should make sure licensing supports smaller news outlets and continue to pursue more meaningful regulations that even out the playing field. The health of democracy depends on it.

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