Facebook reacted dramatically to the proposal last week, blocking Australian news content from being seen on its site, anywhere in the world — and also preventing Facebook users in that country from seeing any news content. In one day, there was a reported 93 percent drop in page views sent from Facebook to Australian publishers. Google, in contrast — after threatening to pull its search engine from the country — struck deals to pay for content from several major companies, including signing a three-year contract with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
The stakes are significant. The rise of the tech platforms has contributed to the implosion of many newsgathering publications. For one thing, advertisers can bypass newspapers and magazines and reach more people by buying online ads. Publishers do get a cut of the revenue from the ads that appear alongside news articles that circulate online, but the tech companies set the terms. Google and Facebook are sensitive to the charge that they are killing off mainstream news entities — while helping users spread conspiracy theories and misinformation — so they have been striving to buy good will through giving grants to journalism organizations, underwriting conferences and subsidizing journalism centers at universities. But the Australian government has seen enough, and it wants to rein in the tech giants’ hold over the news industry. Reformers around the world are watching closely.
In Europe, regulators are also worried about the tech giants’ use of news — but their reforms have had mixed results. When, in 2014, Spain passed a law requiring Google to pay for licenses to link to news articles, Google shut down its news-aggregation site there — permanently. Germany sought to use copyright law to force Google to pay publishers when it linked to news articles and provided short snippets, but a European Union court rejected the plan. On the other hand, Google recently agreed to start paying some French as well as British publishers. (Apple, meanwhile, has Apple News, which pays publishers for content, including in the United States, but takes a large cut of the revenue.)
The companies are especially sensitive when it comes to state-mandated payments. Google and Facebook lobbied furiously against the Australian proposal — deploying sometimes-inconsistent arguments. On the one hand, they downplayed the role that distributing news plays in their businesses, describing it as very minor. On the other, they stressed that they already do news organizations an immense service by sending them millions of readers.
They found a host of supporters, including former prime minister Kevin Rudd, a member of the Labour Party, who argued that the new law would not help independent journalism so much as benefit publications owned by Murdoch. (Murdoch-owned titles have more than 50 percent market share of the newspaper business in Australia.) The computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, often described as the inventor of the Web, also came out against the regulation: Letting publications charge for the right to link to them could render the Internet “unworkable,” he wrote.
On the other side is Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, who came out in support of the law. Not long after that statement, Google, possibly thinking of competition from Bing, came to the bargaining table.
Australia’s regulatory model is promising, but it depends on companies playing along; as Facebook has shown, the companies can always walk away from the news business entirely. But that decision may not play well, over the long term, as the company fights off a reputation that too much of its content already harms democratic decision-making. It very much wants to be known as a purveyor of sound information.
It also seems unlikely that these fees, alone, can save independent and local journalism. But Australia knows this — and it has done more than the United States to help this faltering sector. In 2020, for instance, the government gave 107 regional broadcasters and publishers $50 million in support. Australian philanthropists have gotten into the game, too: They saved Newswire Australian Associated Press — that country’s version of the A.P. — from going under.
There are some locally distinctive aspects of the fight in Australia. Where you come down depends on whom you hate more: Facebook or Murdoch? Those who despise Murdoch’s media empire for spreading intolerance and disinformation do not want to see any law implemented that could generate more revenue for it.
But the American news landscape is more diverse than the Australian one. In fact, given the recent demonization of the press by conservatives, it seems more likely that the right, rather than the left, would oppose an analogous regulation to support newspapers here. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worth trying.
It could also be supplemented by other measures that would help smaller news outlets — or quality journalism more generally. In the United States, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) has introduced the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which would give tax credits for local newspaper subscriptions. Free Press, a grass-roots nonprofit that focuses on media policy, has proposed a tax on microtargeted advertisements with the proviso that funds raised would go to support local news. There is much creative work to be done on this front, and many more taxes and fees that should be levied on these monopolies. But the sooner Facebook and Google contribute their fair share to support the quality journalism that they simultaneously “disrupt” and profit from, the better.