I moderated this panel on problems and possibilities for online news publishers, featuring eco – Association of the Internet Industry policy adviser Thomas Bihlmayer, tech-policy lawyer Cathy Gellis, and Public Knowledge competition policy director Charlotte Slaiman. Spoiler alert: We did not solve the media’s business-model problems in the hour we had, but the participants all made great points, and I would be happy to pick up the discussion with any of them.
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
Google paying for the first click at a paywalled site in a few other countries represents a major turnaround from it demanding that paywalled sites give that first click for free. But with this initiative confined to the News Showcase Google is launching outside the U.S., it offers no help to American publishers that, in turn, continue to neglect revenue possibilities for occasional readers. (In a post here yesterday, I suggested two ideas of my own for that scenario.)
A study from the online-privacy firm Ghostery found that Amazon’s trackers now show up on more U.S. sites than Facebook’s–although not all of these trackers serve its retail business. Meanwhile, Google continues to do the most tracking by an enormous margin.