As you may know, news publishers are very mad at Facebook and Google. They blame the tech giants for the hollowing out of their industry. Aggregators like Google News, they say, steal content from journalists, by showing the headline and a blurb for free. They very much dislike what they see as Facebook’s stranglehold on content. Facebook was the driver behind everybody’s infamous “pivot to video”, which was based on Facebook’s lies. Facebook continues to lie about the number of people their ads can reach. The way news feeds work is encouraging publishers to focus on clickbait. Sorting algorithms are so opaque that people don’t know how to optimize their content from one day to the next. The list goes on.
In response, Australia, at the behest of Rupert Murdoch, has gone and done a silly thing. They are nearing passage of a law that would force these companies to come to an agreement with publishers for paying said publishers whenever an Australian clicks a link to an Australian news source. The law would prohibit ‘discrimination’ on the basis of whether such an agreement has been negotiated with a given outlet, or how much the payment is. The law would require these companies to notify said outlets fourteen days in advance before making any changes to newsfeed or search algorithms.
The law is very dumb. Let’s start with the dumbest part–the algorithm notifications. First of all, newsfeed algorithms change all the time, and we want them to be changeable quickly, for example in response to objectively harmful viral content like the Plandemic video. Second, these are digital algorithms–it’s not a person sitting there with a checklist, it’s an opaque and ineffable neural network. “In fourteen days, we will change hyperparameter X19z to a value of 0.3.” Does that sound like it helps anybody? This is a very strong signal that the drafters don’t know what they’re doing.
Next up: cui bono? News Corp. They wrote the bill and are getting their money’s worth.
[Google] struck deals in recent days with Australia’s major publishing companies, including on Wednesday with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, to pay for some of their news content. The deal came in exchange for avoiding the most stringent parts of a new law in Australia…
Stories from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Sunday Times and other News Corp publications from the United Kingdom and Australia will show up in special panels on the Google News app, on the search home screen on mobile phones and on Google News on desktop computers.
Interestingly, Google took the opposite tack in responding to a somewhat similar Spanish law a few years ago: they shut down Google News in Spain. You would think that news publishers would have been overjoyed–finally, Google is going to stop stealing from them! But they weren’t overjoyed, because as it turns out Google does not steal from them. The study the publishers commissioned found that
[I]n the short-term, the study found, the law will cost publishers €10 million, or about $10.9 million, which would fall disproportionately on smaller publishers. Consumers would experience a smaller variety of content, and the law “impedes the ability of innovation to enter the market.”
The study concludes that there’s no “theoretical or empirical justification” for the fee.
Facebook, however, has chosen to go this route this time around. They have now prohibited Australians from posting links to news, and everybody else from linking to Australian news sources. Yes, this is hardball, a capital strike–but it’s not quite as audacious as it sounds. More below the fold.
Under the terms of the proposed law, Google would have to pay for links in search engine results, and Facebook for links that users post–content that neither company has any control over. They would also be prohibited from linking to only the Australian companies they’ve negotiated favorable terms with–if you want to link to any Australian outlets, you have to link to all of them, no matter how much it costs. Facebook has decided this is a bridge too far, and they don’t want to do business with Australian media.
The legislation “seeks to penalize Facebook for content it didn’t take or ask for,” William Easton, Facebook’s Managing Director in Australia & New Zealand, said in a blog post. Unlike Google, which scrapes news sites and puts links to stories in search results, publishers willingly choose to post news on Facebook to win traffic, Easton said.
“We were prepared to launch Facebook News in Australia and significantly increase our investments with local publishers, however, we were only prepared to do this with the right rules in place,” Easton, the Facebook executive, said. “We will now prioritize investments to other countries.”
The reactions have been apoplectic and incoherent. Kevin Drum has a succinct rundown:
I have two thoughts:
In a nutshell, one party (news publishers) wants to charge another party (Facebook) higher rates. This kind of thing happens all the time. It’s practically the foundation of capitalism. If the buyer decides the price is too high, they don’t buy. That’s all Facebook did.
Second, aren’t we all up in arms about Facebook’s news feeds and how they’re destroying democracy? Shouldn’t we be delighted to see them cut off news altogether?
Wait. Three thoughts. Shouldn’t Australian publishers be ecstatic to no longer be under the Facebook lash? Now they can promote their work without having to worry about Facebook’s endless algorithm changes and paywall hacks. More generally, publishers need to make up their minds. Is Facebook good for their business because it sends lots of traffic their way? Or is it bad for business because it steals ad revenue from them?
The always-worthwhile Mike Masnick has a longer piece making a similar point.
And yet… it seemed to make tons of people freak out for all the wrong reasons. Almost everyone started blaming and attacking Facebook. And, look, I get it, Facebook is a terrible, terrible company and deserves lots of blame for lots of bad things that it does. But this ain’t it.
Tim Berners-Lee, widely considered the father of the World Wide Web, is also not a fan (you’ll have to hunt around to find the PDF).
Requiring a charge for a link on the web blocks an important aspect of the value of web content. To my knowledge, there is no current example of legally requiring payments for links to other content. The ability to link freely — meaning without limitations regarding the content of the linked site and without monetary fees — is fundamental to how the web operates, how it has flourished till present, and how it will continue to grow in decades to come.
Like many others, I support the right of publishers and content creators to be properly rewarded for their work. This is without doubt an issue that needs addressing, both in Australia and around the world. However, I firmly believe that constraints on the use of hypertext links are not the correct way to achieve this goal. It would undermine the fundamental principle of the ability to link freely on the web, and is inconsistent with how the web has been able to operate over the past three decades. If this precedent were followed elsewhere it could make the web unworkable around the world. I therefore respectfully urge the committee to remove this mechanism from the code.
I’ve thought about this for a couple days, and I’ve formed my opinion: Yes, Facebook is bad! But Australia is falling prey to the politician’s syllogism: Something must be done; A dumb bill written by News Corp is something; Therefore, we must do it.
What say you all?