The Great War, Part 3: The Internet vs Journalism
The journalism industry is struggling, worldwide. That’s unfortunate on many levels, particularly given current challenges of rampant mis- and disinformation and a general breakdown of trust in institutions of all kinds. It’s tempting to blame those struggles on the internet collectively, and specifically on the two companies most under robust scrutiny for their dominant advertising practices: Google and Facebook. So much so, in fact, that the question of sustainability of news business models has been reforged into a great war between the internet and journalism, and governments are beginning to choose sides.
Australia is the latest example with its current effort to move forward with its News Media Bargaining Code. Its new law would require Google and Facebook, specifically, to negotiate agreements to pay publishers for the legal right to display news “snippets” and links in their search and social services; if they cannot agree, then a government-appointed arbitration panel will decide between the offers of each side and choose one to be the compensation. In response, Facebook went full send and applied a quick, somewhat error-prone machine-learning algorithm to block the sharing of Australian news sites globally, and block the sharing of all news within Australia.
But a war is not the right way to reach good policy outcomes. It will accomplish no more than inefficient wealth transfer and continued obscuring of the brutal truths that must be confronted before a true sustainable future for journalism can be developed.
Australia’s move is an innovation beyond what Spain, Germany and the European Union as a bloc have done over the past decade, as previous efforts have been grounded in copyright law and new exclusionary rights for publishers (above and beyond the rights given to authors). In 2013, the German Parliament passed a new ancillary copyright law, widely derided as a “Google tax,” specifically to give publishers the legal right to restrict display of article headlines and “snippets” in search results and news aggregators (though German publishers lost a subsequent legal fight over €1 billion in copyright fees under the law). Spain in 2014 followed suit. Despite years of analysis and advocacy undermining the arguments in favor of these laws and demonstrating their potential for real harm, in 2019 the European Union adopted a copyright reform package that included new ancillary copyright for publishers.
Australia has taken this line of reasoning one step further by abandoning the pretense of grounding its mandated wealth transfer proposal in copyright principles and law. Much has already been written to analyze the Australian framework and explain its likely outcomes, such as Casey Newton’s piece in Platformer. As Newton outlines, while there is some logic of mutual benefit in voluntary agreements between platforms and publishers, the practical effects of a legal mandate and other provisions in the Australian bill—coupled with the absence of any mandate for publishers to use the receipts for any benefit for journalism—undermine the case that this will result in concrete benefits for journalism.
Google, meanwhile, has embarked on a steady series of agreements, including this month signing a deal to pay French news publishers $98 million over three years. Little surprise, then, that the company’s response to the legal developments in Australia was to enter into agreements with major Australian publishers, including the Murdoch’s News Corp, although that decision was criticized by many as a capitulation that could set bad global precedents.
Every story is more compelling with a villain, and here, Facebook is yet again cast in the role. (Microsoft briefly tried to paint Google with that brush, but the company’s quick deals have moved it off of the hot seat.) Many hot takes on Twitter quickly compared the rapidity with which Facebook was able to roll out a crude news filter to the company’s ongoing struggles with rooting out harmful content more generally. Damian Collins, a vocal member of the UK parliament, laid out the issue as choosing a “side” between Facebook and liberal democracy, harkening back to the first post in this series.
In this great war that should not be a war, the publishing industry has won two great battles: first in associating themselves inextricably with journalism itself, and second with shifting analysis of the problem away from the failings of its industry to the rampant successes of the internet sector. Determined to contest the outcome, Facebook has struck the next blow, in what Charlotte Jee of the MIT Technology Review called “a big, ugly power flex.” It’s unclear what will come next, but to quote Jee again: “In short, the current situation is unsustainable and undesirable for everyone.”
Certainly, Australian publishers will gain some new resources as a result of the government’s actions, whether through “voluntary” agreements entered into at the point of a sword or through the law’s mandatory mechanisms. What, exactly, they will use those resources for remains an open question—and a much harder one. Jeff Jarvis wrote an excellent piece two years ago, called “Scorched Earth,” in which he laid out four blunt truths facing journalism as an industry: advertising is burning out; paywalls only work for a few media entities; philanthropy and charity are insufficient to support the gaps; and government support is problematic, whether offered as financial subsidy or regulatory intervention. Jarvis looks to local communities and how future innovations in journalism can be grounded in, supported by and provide unique value to communities. This vision is consistent with Andrew Losowsky’s work with the Coral Project and Ethan Zuckerman’s efforts to build new digital public infrastructure.
Deep problems, such as those facing the future of journalism, merit deep policy analyses and thorough, inclusive, substantive discussions where every stakeholder is working toward the same goal—not shallow pictures of false binary political debates where a winner must be determined to resolve a fictitious war.
INTRODUCTION – The Great War for the future of internet governance has begun.
PART 1 – The Great War, Part 1: The Internet vs Democracy
PART 2 – The Great War: The Internet vs the Free Market
PART 3 – The Great War: The Internet vs Journalism
PART 4 – The Great War: The Internet vs Truth
PART 5 – The Great War, Part 5: The Internet vs Happiness
PART 6 – The Great War, Part 6: The Internet vs Itself
Image credit: Photo Kozyr