The global freak-out over Facebook’s (temporary, no doubt) decision to remove Australian news sites from its users’ feeds reflects multiple misunderstandings — some of which are plainly deliberate — about what’s going on Down Under. Here’s my take, which is drawn largely from my earlier Twitter thread:
At the heart of the matter is Australia’s desire to help media companies — at least media companies with political clout — replace advertising money that moved from their inefficient operations to (apparently) more efficient ones. To force this,the government wants Facebook-Google to pay media companies, notably Rupert Murdoch’s media companies, for the privilege of sending traffic to articles on his websites.
This is a tax on linking, though it isn’t called that, and it does more than reward one of the most vile people on our planet. It breaks the open Internet.
No one should have to pay to link to someone else’s public web page. If news organizations want to stop inbound links, they can add a tiny snippet of code. They will never, ever do this.
What the media companies — led by transcendentally cynical people, Murdoch at the front — want is a replacement for the money they once collected when they held substantial control over where advertising appeared, and what it cost.
Their anti-tech propaganda campaign would have you believe that they have a righteous, god-given claim to advertising revenues. Why is that?
Because ads once supported some of the journalism that some media owners offered to some demographics in some communities. That’s their logic (a word that belongs in scare quotes).
That support came at a cost of its own: a market failure represented by the news owners’ monopoly/oligopoly that they ruthlessly exploited. Advertisers got royally screwed in the good old days. Who paid for that? Their customers, eventually.
The news organizations’ advertising dominance also screwed the general public in a direct way. If you ever placed a classified ad in the good old days you paid extortionate prices for a crappy service.
It is absolutely true that some news organizations used some of their monopoly rents to produce something of public value in some places for some of the people who lived there: journalism. That was a good thing, and we still need journalism, more than ever. And we need to do more, much more, to support journalism.
We also need to limit the power of the tech giants, in any number of arenas and in any number of ways. These are separate issues.
Political manipulations to support journalism by forcing two tech companies to give money to a few media companies are just another kind of market-rigging. Australia and other governments in thrall to Murdoch et al would be much more honest to simply tax the tech industry and have the government give the money to the media companies.
I’m not a big fan of direct taxpayer support of journalism, but if that’s what people want to do, go for it. Just be straightforward about it. But the Australian scheme is such a con, and not solely because the beneficiaries are boundless hypocrites.
For one thing, transferring money from new robber barons to old ones won’t do much, if anything, to boost the kind of local journalism we need everywhere, in all communities. And it ignores the much more serious platform issues.
One of those issues is whether online advertising is, as I believe the evidence is increasingly making clear, a giant con game that rips off everyone but the evil ad-tech industry. (See also Cory Doctorow’s red-hot post on this situation.) If this is the case, the advertisers are obviously victims and should be in court yesterday to recoup losses. But if there’s a direct link to news organizations’ decline, that suggests another course of action: To the extent that revenues that had once gone to news orgs, and that provably moved to platforms, were moved there because of fraud — isn’t that a slam-dunk antitrust and/or fraud civil lawsuit? Yale Law School’s Dina Srinivasan says yes, absolutely (h/t Cory for that link).
If Australia’s move becomes the norm, it will entrench the tech platforms even more. If they become the financial lifelines for (some) media businesses, those enterprises will become the platforms’ most ardent defenders. Tech journalism is inept enough already, but this will make it worse.
I’m disappointed that Google has given into the pressure and cut a deal with the Murdoch family. The company has made such deals elsewhere (France in particular), and the company policy now seems to be to fold when Big Media have enough clout with local governments.
Facebook (disclosure: it has funded some of our work) acted with surprising clumsiness in Australia. Yet its stance is closer to the right one than Google’s.
Taxing links breaks the Internet. Don’t do it.
Supporting journalism is essential. Do it, but do it the right way.