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.

I’m (still) sorry about the schlock ads here

Yesterday’s announcement of a merger of Taboola and Outbrain–the dreadful duo responsible for those horrible “around the Web” galleries of clickbait ads tarting up many of your favorite news sites–provided yet another reminder of how fundamentally schlocky programmatic ads can get online.

But so did a look at this blog.

When WordPress.com launched WordAds in 2012, the company touted a more tasteful advertising system that bloggers here could be proud of. The reality in the seven years since has been less impressive.

The WordAds program features some respectable, name-brand advertisers like Airbnb and Audible, to name two firms seen here tonight. But it’s also accepted too much tacky crap–including some of the same medically-unsound trash that litters Taboola and Outbrain “chumboxes”–while struggling to block scams like the “forced-redirect” ad in the screenshot at right.

Over the last year, I’ve also been increasingly bothered by the way these ads rely on tracking your activity across the Web. I know that many of you avoid that surveillance by using browsers like Safari or Firefox with tracking-protection features, but I’d just as soon not be part of the privacy problem. Alas, WordPress has yet to offer bloggers the option of running ads that only target context (as in, the posts they accompany), not perceived user behavior as determined by various programmatic systems.

I do make money off these ads, but slowly. Most months, my advertising income here doesn’t exceed $10, and I can’t withdraw any of the proceeds until they exceed $100. I had thought that I’d see one of those paydays last month–but August’s addition to my ad income left me 28 cents shy of that C-note threshold.

So in practice, my major return on WordAds is the opportunity to have my face periodically shoved into the muck of online marketing. That’s worth something, I guess.