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: local ISPs, augmented reality, Toronto and Lisbon’s mayors, TVision, Senate Commerce vs. tech CEOs

I’m looking at a four-day workweek at my day job–plus a 16-hour day Tuesday as a poll worker for Arlington. Wish me luck! More important, wish all of us luck.

10/26/2020: Local Internet Service Providers, U.S. News & World Report

I wrote guides to the major choices for Internet access (using data from BroadbandNow) in 10 markets: Fairbanks, Alaska; Chandler, Ariz.; Colorado Springs and Denver, Colo.; Chicago, Ill.; Cary and Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Dallas and El Paso, Tex. (The first of these got posted back on Oct. 16, but the last two didn’t land until Tuesday, and it’s simpler to cover them in one entry.) Putting this together enlightened me beyond expectations about the state of broadband across the U.S.; for instance, I hadn’t realized how strict data caps could get until seeing what Alaska’s dominant cable provider inflicts on its customers.

10/26/2020: AR is finally infiltrating everyday tasks such as Google search, Fast Company

Writing this post on the state of augmented-reality interfaces allowed me to revisit a topic I’d covered for the Washington Post almost 11 years ago. It’s too bad Yelp scrapped the Monocle AR interface I wrote about then.

10/27/2020: Panel: Leading the city of the future, City Summit

This Web Summit side event had me interview Lisbon mayor Fernando Medina and Toronto mayor John Tory about how their cities–hosts of the Web Summit and Collision conferences, also places I sorely miss visiting this year–have responded to the novel-coronavirus pandemic.

10/27/2020: T-Mobile Launches TVision To Help You Fire Cable (Or Satellite) TV, Forbes

I walked readers through T-Mobile’s entry into streaming TV, which offers some surprisingly aggressive pricing but also requires some compromises in its channel selections that may prove non-trivial obstacles.

10/29/2020: The Best And Worst Moments In The Senate’s Grilling Of Social-Media CEOs, Forbes

The Senate Commerce Committee’s interrogation of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey featured many cringe-inducing if not disgraceful sound bites, but it also afforded some non-garbage-fire moments. I particularly enjoyed writing the last sentence, even if it cost me some time poking around Federal Election Commission filings.

Weekly output: Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (x3), news paywalls

I had ambitions of catching up on various side projects this week, and then the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica story blew up.

3/19/2018: Facebook apps may see more of your personal info than you want. Here’s how to turn them off, USA Today

My first stab at covering the Cambridge Analytica debacle was this how-to for USA Today about pruning Facebook apps. Six days later, the piece already looks a little obsolete: It doesn’t note how Facebook could have gathered your call and SMS logs if you’d enabled its contacts-sync option in earlier versions of Android. (I can’t remember allowing that, and my Facebook data download shows no evidence of any such collection.)

3/20/2018: Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, Al Jazeera

The news channel had me on once again to discuss this news, in particular how Cambridge’s data plunder compared to the Obama campaign’s Facebook efforts in 2012. This time, though, I couldn’t find a link back to my overdubbed-in-Arabic appearance.

3/21/2018: Big Tech’s accountability-avoidance problem is getting worse, Yahoo Finance

I revisited this topic yet again for Yahoo, this time putting Facebook’s early non-response in the context of the “we’re just a platform” line that social networks keep throwing out every time we learn of horrible user behavior happening on their watch.

3/23/2018: News sites have embraced paywalls that alienate readers, Yahoo Finance

I revisited my August 2016 endorsement of the news-micropayment site Blendle in a less-forgiving mood. Blendle’s gone two years without exiting its closed beta in the U.S., news sites here have accelerated an understandable pivot to paywalls, and a Steve Jobs quote now comes to mind: “real artists ship.” Sadly, too much of the rest of the industry seems in no hurry to offer an alternative to readers who want to inform themselves on a breaking-news topic but aren’t ready for an auto-renewing commitment to a news site.

My Facebook-apps privacy audit

At some point, I was going to revisit my Facebook-privacy settings, but this weekend’s news about Cambridge Analytica’s exfiltration of some 50 million Facebook users’ data via a personality-quiz app moved up that timetable a bit.

That also sped up my overdue reacquaintance with my Facebook app settings–something I hadn’t paid much attention to since I last added any apps to my profile. The how-to I wrote in late 2013 about Facebook privacy waved away that angle: “Most of the options under the ‘Apps’ heading only apply if you add applications to your profile.”

Alas, I had added a few apps to my profile, especially in the first few years I had an account. Make that a few dozen apps. They fell into a few categories:

  • Apps or site logins (Facebook lists both on the same page) that I didn’t remember adding but could imagine reasons to have done so.
  • Apps that I had once appreciated but hadn’t touched in years (and which, per the new policy Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Wednesday, would now be cut off).
  • Apps that I still appreciated but which had more access to my data than I recalled granting.
  • Apps that I recognized and which didn’t demand information beyond the public-on-Facebook aspects of my profile.

The last category aside, it was an embarrassing exercise. How had I allowed so many apps to see my friends list? Aren’t I supposed to know this stuff?

After that humbling moment, I removed about two-thirds of the apps, with those offering discernable utility cut down to seeing only my basic profile information. I should have done that years ago. But so should most of us.

Bear in mind that I’ve never treated Facebook as a friends-only space. I know that screenshots exist; I hadn’t had a Facebook account for more than a year and change before a now-defunct D.C.-journalism-gossip site posted a sceengrab of it. If I post an update, I try to write it so it won’t look too incriminating when quoted elsewhere out of context.

During this overdue investigation, I also looked at the “Apps Others Use” category that Facebook vaguely explains as a way for friends to bring your info to apps they use. I’d unchecked all 13 of those options, but after seeing most activated in a dummy account I keep for fact-checking purposes–and having people ask if this didn’t mean that Facebook apps could still grab data from friends–I had to ask Facebook to clear this up.

The less-than-conclusive answer I got over two e-mails: That cluster of settings dates to “before we made significant changes to how developers build apps on Facebook” that eliminated its functionality, except that it “still addresses some limited situations like photo sharing.”

So it appears that this absurdly wealthy company has trouble updating and documenting its privacy interface. That’s yet another problem Facebook needs to solve.

Weekly output: old TVs, Mark Zuckerberg, rebooting, deleting old e-mail, wireless charging, Android phones, wireless carriers, smartphone features, smart apartments

Another Mobile World Congress went into the books when I flew home from Barcelona Thursday. I’m glad that show and that city have become a regular part of my travel schedule.

2/21/2016: It’s really time to let go of that old tube TV, USA Today

Circling back to a topic I covered in 2013 allowed me to note some good HDTV options for under $200–including the Wirecutter’s $170 pick–and the unfortunate end of Best Buy’s free TV recycling.

Yahoo Tech Zuckerberg MWC post2/22/2016: Zuckerberg at MWC: Getting the World (and Someday His Daughter) Online, Yahoo Tech

The Facebook founder’s Q&A session started at 6 p.m. local time, meaning the press room closed while I was still writing my recap. I finished it on a bench in the hall outside–MWC, unlike CES, has free WiFi throughout the facility.

2/22/2016: Tip: Sometimes You Really Do Need to Reboot the Damn Thing, Yahoo Tech

I’d written this tip item weeks before, not knowing that a colleague had just filed a different tip item around the virtues of rebooting. Fortunately, our devices did not get any less buggy over the ensuing month.

2/23/2016: Tip: How to Quickly and Easily Get Rid of Old E-Mails, Yahoo Tech

You read a version this three and a half years ago at USA Today, but that didn’t give enough credit to Microsoft’s Outlook.com for nailing the task of automatically deleting e-mails over a certain age.

2/23/2016: Why Wireless Charging Is Still a Tangled Mess, Yahoo Tech

Once again, the wireless industry seems dead set on balkanizing itself between two ways to do the same thing.

2/24/2016: Your Next Android Phone: Smaller but Expandable, Yahoo Tech

This was my attempt at a State of the Union address for Android phones.

2/24/2016: Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

Our first major update to this guide since September factored in the end of two-year contracts at AT&T and Sprint… and two days after it went up, I learned that Sprint had restored two-year contracts. We should have yet another update up in a few days.

2/26/2016: Your next smartphone should have these features, USA Today

My last MWC post inventoried six features that I think you’ll want on your next phone–and another that nobody should care about for a few more years.

2/27/2016: Emerging Multifamily Technologies Panel, NWP Energy Summit

The morning after I got home from Spain–professionalism!–I moderated this panel discussion with NWP’s Howard Behr, Greystar’s Pam Darmofalski, Embue’s Robert Cooper and Remotely’s Mike Branam about how smart-home technology is changing apartments.