Where I’m coming from in the Australia-versus-digital-platforms fight

The one thing you can say about any tech-policy dispute involving Facebook is that the ensuing discussion will take a while. Witness this week’s blowup in Australia, where the imminent passage of a bill (“News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code”) mandating a scheme of payments from the largest digital platforms to government-registered news publishers led Facebook to respond Wednesday with a news blackout. Now Australians can’t read or share news links on Facebook, Australian publishers can’t share their stories there, and Facebook users in every other country can’t share Australian news links either.

Photo of an inflatable globe, showing Australia

After writing about that fracas at Forbes on Wednesday, I spent too much time over the next day and a half in what may be my longest-ever tech-policy Twitter discussion. That left me feeling worn out–but also wishing I had taken a little more time to make my views clear. So for future reference, here are several things I think about this entire debate over what, if anything, tech platforms owe news sites.

Link taxes don’t make moral or economic sense. Not only does nobody need permission to link on the Web, a pointer to a news site–whether it’s a Google search result, a Facebook post or the blue text here–does not take from that site in any meaningful way. Well, not unless the nut of the story comes across in the headline and lead image, in which case the same story would likely go unread if seen on a newspaper’s home page. I’ve said this in various ways over more than a decade: the Washington Post in 2009, the Disruptive Competition Project in 2012, at Yahoo Finance in 2018, and at Glitch’s blog Glimmer last spring. (DisCo is a project of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group that counts Google as a member; as you can see, my judgment didn’t change before or after my one year contributing to its policy blog.)

We don’t need new forms of intellectual property. Trying to solve an economic or societal problem by expanding the reach of intellectual-property rights is almost always a bad idea, whether it’s allowing far more forms of human output to become eligible for patent protection, retroactively extending copyright terms by decades, or criminalizing certain categories of software because they could be used to infringe copyright. Every time, we wind up rewarding the biggest incumbents and giving more work for lawyers while doing much less to promote the progress of science and useful arts–as in, the reason the Constitution gives for Congress to grant these limited rights.

The vast reach of Facebook and Google is a legitimate cause for nervousness. I think both companies exercise more influence over our online lives than is healthy and have written multiple how-to stories (see, for instance, these stories from 2017, 2018, and 2020) to get people to spend less time at each. And I’ve practiced what I preach, including the defaults in my own browsers and the setup of this blog. Yet people keep sticking with Google, even though it’s trivial to change your search site. My WordPress stats show that of the 291,315 search-engine referrals to this blog since its April 2011 launch, 277,850 came from Google. Y’all couldn’t try making DuckDuckGo or Bing the default in even one browser on one device?

Antitrust laws exist for a reason. In retrospect, letting Facebook buy Instagram seems foolish, and waving through Google’s acquisition of a series of ad-tech firms looks like another missed opportunity. But if the underlying problem here is that these two companies have grown too big and too powerful, we already possess the tools to do something about that. Trustbusting may be the preferred remedy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.), but it was also a key plank of Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican administration. And it’s a group of Republican state attorneys general that have made the most serious charges of anticompetitive behavior by Facebook and Google.

Facebook’s political choices invite particular skepticism about its motives. Over the last five years, we’ve seen Facebook set aside its own rules about misinformation, wave aside obviously inauthentic behavior and reward right-wing outlets like Breitbart to placate the Trump wing of the Republican Party. Now it’s chosen to expel legitimate news for an entire continent, leaving News Feeds there wide open for memes at best, misinformation at worst. Does anybody think much of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s sense of civic obligation after all this?

Online advertising is a big part of the news industry’s problem. The more I look at the machinery behind the online ads that supposedly prop up news sites–meaning the display ads programmatically inserted to match a reader’s perceived interests–the more I hate it. We’ve built a system that requires extensive tracking of people across the Web, somehow involves the work of a large set of intermediaries yet still winds up dominated at multiple levels by Google, struggles to keep out bad actors, and winds up delivering too little money to publishers. You know what doesn’t even touch this problem? Demands for link taxes.

If digital platforms can build new businesses with publishers, that’s not wrong even if it happens under political duress. Google has responded to demands like those in Australia and in Europe with something called the News Showcase, an enhanced news-search site that takes readers direct to stories and pays publishers. It’s ugly and sad that Google is doing this to pay off publishers who would otherwise try to break the open Web, but if it gets money to newsrooms more reliably than digital ads, I’ll take it.

News publishers can be their own worst enemy. Neither Facebook nor Google forced news sites to harangue visitors with solicitations to sign up for browser alerts or newsletters. The tech giants didn’t forbid paywalled newspapers from giving occasional or out-of-town readers some middle ground between opening a subscription and opening a private-browsing window. And they certainly didn’t force newspaper owners to sell out to such civic cancers as the newspaper-strangling hedge fund Alden Global Capital, new owners of the Chicago Tribune and the Tribune Publishing family of papers.

It’s fair to judge a political act by its ability to persuade. All of the above might suggest that I should be cheering on Facebook for defending the open Web against Australia’s intellectual-property land grab. But Facebook chose to respond in the most oafish manner possible short of deleting the accounts of individual Aussie news execs. Facebook didn’t try to target its response to publishers seeking to cash in on this law, subjected users in the rest of the world to an outburst of control-freakery, and can’t be bothered to make a real case to users who post an Australian news link and get an error message. The open Web no more needs this help than the argument over regulating “Big Tech” is helped by the grandstanding of Missouri’s sedition-abetting junior senator. So now I worry that Facebook’s arrogant, clumsy response will only goad legislators in Canberra into pushing this law through, just to show they won’t be bossed around by Zuckerberg.

Updated 2/21/2021 to note that the Australian bill would have the government determine which publishers qualified for these payments, a deeply problematic provision in its own right, clean up some tangled syntax, and to add a paragraph about antitrust that should have been in this post yesterday.

Weekly output: an expanding public domain

Four days to go in this year, less than 24 days to go in Donald Trump’s term.

12/24/2020: You’ll Be Able To Download A Lot More Stuff For Free—Legally—Jan. 1, Forbes

I had meant to write last year about the overdue reopening of the public domain after 21 years of its expansion being closed off because of the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. But my friend Glenn Fleishman beat me to it with a terrific story for Smithsonian. Fortunately, Congress refrained from passing yet another retroactive extension of copyright terms, allowing me to celebrate the impending unlocking of 1925’s creative works for reuse and remix–and explain how we haven’t seen the old intellectual-property-policy script get yet another remake in Washington.

Weekly output: EU copyright, ICANN, self-driving cars (x2), MacBook battery

I could have had two other items on this list–Thursday, two different news networks asked if I could comment on camera about Yahoo’s data breach. I told each booker that as somebody who writes for a Yahoo site, it would be just a bit awkward for me to opine on camera about that issue. (Besides, it’s not like I had much free time that day in the first place.)

9/19/2016: The EU’s new copyright reforms could change the internet, Yahoo Finance

I filed this piece–a sequel of sorts to a post I did in 2012 for the Disruptive Competition Project about Europe’s doomed dream of getting search engines to pay newspapers for showing snippets of stories in search results–from the Online News Association’s conference Friday afternoon of the prior week. That scheduling seems to be the only consistently reliable way for me to get a post up on a Monday morning.

9/20/2016: No, Ted Cruz, the US isn’t giving away the internet, Yahoo Finance

I’d had this story on my to-do list for weeks, but finally writing it this week turned out to be good timing: The next day, Donald Trump came out against the planned handover of supervision of the domain name system, doing so with his characteristic lack of knowledge.

yahoo-final-round-interview9/22/2016: Stocks extend Fed-fueled rally, Yahoo Finance

I made my debut on Finance’s 4 p.m. “The Final Round” live show not to talk about the stock market, but to discuss the legal prospects for self-driving cars. I’m on from about 5:00 to 8:00 in the video, talking to host Jen Rogers about things like who might be likely to sue whom when one autonomous car hits another.

9/22/2016: How the government plans to make your self-driving car safer, Yahoo Finance

I wrote about half this story on the train up from D.C., with the remaining half done after watching a panel of lawyers debate this topic at the MarketplaceLive conference in New York. Because I was in Yahoo’s newsroom, I could go over the edits the old-fashioned way: by sitting down next to my editor instead of bouncing messages back and forth in Slack.

9/25/2016: How to prolong your MacBook’s battery life, USA Today

Not for the first time, my own hardware served up a good column topic that helped me learn a new troubleshooting step, which is always nice.

Weekly output: digitizing infrastructure, Oracle v. Google, Bluetooth beacons, ads and privacy

After two straight weeks of travel (separated by almost 24 hours at home), I have the novel experience of looking at my calendar and not seeing any upcoming flights. That can only be explained by a bug in that app, right?

Connected Conference panel5/27/2016: Digitizing Infrastructure, Connected Conference

The scheduling for my part of this Internet-of-Things conference in Paris moved around a lot. My original connected-cars panel got swapped out for this one, and then the speakers for a discussion of smart buildings and smart cities got reshuffled more than once. As you can see, the conference site’s page about the panel still only lists some of the people who showed up Friday morning (besides me, Olivier Selles of Bouygues Immobilier, Herbert Beck of Nexity, Riad Ziour of Openergy, Jackson Bond of Relayr and IBM’s Christian Comtat). Most surprising anecdote: How an IoT climate-control system brought a little labor peace to an office where union officials didn’t trust management’s estimates of indoor air quality.

5/27/2016: Why you should care that Google dodged Oracle’s $9 billion bullet, Yahoo Finance

This jury verdict in Google’s favor and against Oracle dropped Thursday night in Paris, so I had to write this explainer during what little downtime I had Friday morning and afternoon in the city. (Did comparing APIs to the bumps on a Lego block work for you?) I promise I will look over all 120-and-counting comments sometime soon, but hopefully not tomorrow.

5/29/2016: Don’t be alarmed if Android wants to get physical, USA Today

After a visit to one Connected Conference exhibit yielded an Android notification of a Web address being broadcast by a nearby Bluetooth beacon, I realized I had a decent column topic sitting in front of me. Writing it also gave me a chance to revisit some of the early hype around Apple’s iOS-only iBeacon.

5/29/2016: A ‘right not to be surprised’ in ads would be great — good luck defining that, Yahoo Finance

I’d had this idea kicking around since hearing AdRoll CEO Adam Berke’s talk at the Collision conference, but I somehow waited to finish writing it until I was in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Weekly output: DMCA exemptions, Facebook futurism, Tinder, Web Summit

Back in March, my friend Ron Miller was recounting his experience at Web Summit a few months earlier and suggesting I go. I’m glad (not for the first time!) I heeded his advice. For a sense of those five days in Dublin, see my Flickr slideshow.

I’m now about to spend a couple of days in New York for the Consumer Electronics Association’s Innovate conference, where I can heckle David Pogue get an update on what the gadget industry’s been up to.

11/3/2015: Why Jailbreaking Your iPhone Is Legal But Hacking eBooks is Not, Yahoo Tech

Longtime readers may recall I wrote a post for CEA’s public-policy blog in 2011 about the incoherent policy of granting exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s ban on circumventing DRM. My wait for an opportunity to revisit this topic ended when the government issued this year’s round of exemptions a week and change ago.

Yahoo Tech Facebook Web Summit talk post11/4/2015: Facebook’s Vision for the Future: Drones With Lasers, All-Seeing AI, VR for Real, Yahoo Tech

This post stands as a sequel of sorts to the piece I filed from SXSW about a similar talk from Google’s “Captain of Moonshots” Astro Teller about a comparable range of ambitious experiments.

11/4/2015: Tinder’s Sean Rad: We’re Changing the World, One Long-Term Relationship at a Time, Yahoo Tech

I was worried I wouldn’t get into the hall to see Rad’s interview, but the crowds parted and I got a seat. As I asked at the end of this post: If you, unlike me, have ever installed Tinder on your own phone, do you agree with Rad’s take on this dating app?

11/6/2015: Robot sex, drone sheep-herding: what you missed at Web Summit, USA Today

The lede and end of this story popped into my head almost immediately, but the rest took longer to write. As in, I was still working on it while on a bus to meet three of my cousins for dinner. (Dublin FYI: The buses have WiFi that worked well for me after I’d answered a moderately intrusive questionnaire on the “captive portal” sign-in page.)

 

Weekly output: defective touchscreen digitizers, the future of video content, Google Books, Tech Night Owl, Verizon Wireless privacy

I had one of my shortest stays in San Francisco this week–I arrived Sunday night, then flew home Wednesday morning. Three days in, jet lag still had me waking up so early that getting to SFO for a 7:25 a.m. departure was no trouble at all.

10/19/2015: Phone with mind of its own may not be hacked or haunted, USA Today

My Sunday column went up a day late. After all the deadlines I’ve shredded, I can’t complain.

Comptel Plus panel10/20/2015: Looking Ahead: The Future of Content, Comptel Plus

I moderated this panel about online video services in San Francisco at the annual conference of the Washington trade group that just renamed itself from Comptel to Incompas. My fellow panelists: Netflix public-policy director Corie Wright, Verizon Wireless v.p. and associate general counsel William H. Johnson, and Zander Lehmann, writer and creator of the Hulu series “Casual.” Almost all of the questions we got from the audience focused on something neither Hulu nor Netflix offer, and which is only available in limited quantities on VzW’s Go90 service: live sports.

10/20/2015: Google’s Fair Use Victory Is a Win for Us All, Yahoo Tech

It had been years since I last wrote about Google Books and the Authors Guild lawsuit against it, but Friday’s ruling in favor of Google allowed me to return to the topic–and offer some thoughts on the fuzzy definition of “fair use” in copyright law. Fun fact: the books in that photo fill a shelf in the lobby of the Marriott Courtyard Union Square, where I stayed Sunday night.

10/24/2015: October 24, 2015 — Josh Centers and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl

I talked about Apple’s new iMac and my old one, the state of software quality in Cupertino, and the prospect of an Apple car (I think Apple’s talents would be better placed in imitating Tesla by developing a competitor to the Powerwall home battery).

10/25/2015: Verizon’s AOL deal brings new privacy worries, USA Today

The impending combination of Verizon and AOL’s advertising machinery will bring one improvement in privacy: Verizon Wireless will stop stamping its “UIDH” tracker all of its subscribers’ unencrypted Web traffic. But the company’s privacy notice is sufficiently vague on this point that I missed it in a first draft.

Weekly output: copyright and APIs, 5 GHz WiFi

Beyond what you see here, I also filed 4,000-plus words’ worth of reviews that have yet to be posted. You can imagine my relief at getting them off the to-do list.

Yahoo Tech API-copyright post5/13/2014: How the Government Can Improve Tech: Stop Reinventing Intellectual Property, Yahoo Tech

In this week’s column, I teed off on the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s dangerously foolish ruling that you can copyright the workings of an application programming interface–a judgment that, if the Supreme Court somehow doesn’t toss it in the trash, will make a lot of reverse engineering illegal. I was not surprised in the least to see a few IP maximalists surface in the comments to contest my opinion, but I thought they would try to offer a counterargument more sophisticated than the likes of “this guy wants to make everything free.”

5/18/2014: How to fix pokey WiFi at home, USA Today

In yet another Q&A based on a relative’s computing travails, I explained how switching a WiFi network from 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz could end interference issues caused by a surplus of other WiFi networks and baby monitors but require adding a second router to ensure the same coverage as before.

Feed me, see more (The Magazine meets BuzzFeed)

This story originally ran in issue 15 of The Magazine. You can now read it here by virtue of that publication’s impressively author-friendly contract.

One of the Web’s most popular sites — and the exceedingly rare media property soaking up tens of millions of dollars in venture-capital financing — gets much of its content without asking permission to use it, much less paying for it.

The Magazine BuzzFeed coverThat’s not news. But if you talk to some of the people whose images wind up in BuzzFeed’s endlessly clickable and heavily clicked-upon photo galleries, you may have your expectations overturned, as mine were: most say thanks for the exposure.

BuzzFeed at first looked like an appropriator that took value without returning it, irritating professional photographers who find their work both increasingly valued and increasingly used without compensation. But on closer inspection, BuzzFeed may be finding its way toward a safer course — a careful combination of conventional licensing and curatorial selection.

Continue reading

Weekly output: SideCar, Internet sales taxes, group-play apps, Do Not Call, Android screen lock

Nothing too dramatic this week, but first thing Monday morning I’m on the plane to SFO for two conferences: Influence HR on Monday, where I’m speaking on a panel about media relations (disclosure: the organizers are picking up my airfare), and Google I/O Wednesday through Friday.

SideCar DisCo post5/6/2013: SideCar Approaches A Regulatory On-Ramp, Disruptive Competition Project

This ride-sharing service aims to match drivers with time to spare on their existing routes with people heading in the same general direction. The D.C. Taxi Commission, along with other local regulators, sees it as an illegal taxi service. SideCar is pleading its case with the public but also with elected representatives: my interview with CEO Sunil Paul was delayed 45 minutes because he was finishing up a breakfast meeting with Ward 3 city councilmember Mary Cheh.

5/8/2013: Expert: Online sales tax would make real difference to main street, Voice of Russia American Edition

Harvard Business School professor Benjamin G. Edelman and I talked about the Marketplace Fairness Act, the bill that would require most Internet retailers to collect sales taxes for states that simplify their tax regimes.

5/10/2013: Group-Playback Apps Let You Choose Your Own Copyright Adventure, Disruptive Competition Project

I thought there might be an interesting piece about the copyright-law implications of Samsung’s Group Play app, which lets you play one song through multiple devices at once; after encountering a similar, Web-based app at the Day of Fosterly event last weekend, I decided there was.

5/12/2013: Will spam calls ever stop?, USA Today

A query on my neighborhood’s mailing list about a clearly illegal telemarketing call we’ve received a couple of times led me to revisit the topic of spam calls–and spam texts. There’s also a tip about two ways to strengthen the pattern-lock option on Android phones.

On Sulia, I noted two unexpectedly gutsy tech-policy bills–one from Sen. John McCain that would basically blow up much of the TV business, another from Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Jared Polis and Thomas Massie that would repair the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s anti-circumvention clause–and shared Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s low opinion of Congressional tech literacy. I also related news about United Airlines’ upcoming switch from drop-down screens to streaming media on its A319s and A320s, at the cost of its Channel 9 air-traffic-control audio. And I wrote a sponsored post about Betabeat’s startup-pitch webisode series that, apparently, almost nobody read.