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Meta could remove U.S. news if Congress helps outlets demand payment

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Facebook parent company Meta threatened it might take all news content off its U.S. platforms — in what would be a major blow for journalism outlets grappling with a difficult media market — if Congress moves ahead with a proposal that gives publications greater leverage to negotiate compensation from tech platforms distributing their content.

The proposal, which lawmakers originally floated as a stand-alone bill and now are reportedly considering as part of a must-pass annual defense bill, would allow news outlets to collectively bargain with tech giants that distribute their content, including Google and Meta, giving them greater leverage to negotiate favorable commercial terms.

A Meta spokesman issued a blistering statement on Monday, criticizing any plan to accelerate the provisions from the Journalism and Competition Preservation Act through Congress. Such a move would force the technology giant “to consider removing news content from our platform altogether,” Meta said in a statement shared by spokesman Andy Stone in a tweet, going so far as to say the proposal would create a “cartel-like entity.”

Meta’s threat is the latest in an emerging global battle between governments and tech giants over whether the latter should be forced to pay news outlets to display their original content in search results and social media feeds.

Meta has previously acted on similar threats in Australia, where last year it temporarily blocked all news content from appearing on its feeds in protest of similar plans since enacted by its government.

Australia wants Facebook and Google to pay for news on their sites. Other countries think it’s a good idea too.

“The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act fails to recognize the key fact: publishers and broadcasters put their content on our platform themselves because it benefits their bottom line — not the other way around,” Meta said, arguing that any attempt to force the tech giant into direct negotiations with news outlets ignored the value it already provided to them in the form of increased traffic and subscriptions.

“Creating a cartel-like entity which requires one private company to subsidize other private entities is a terrible precedent for all American businesses,” Meta continued.

Tech giants have long resisted the proposals. They argue that news outlets already benefit significantly from having their content shared on tech platforms, which they choose to do, and that the plan would place an unfair hand on the scales against them.

Proponents of the bill — provisions of which lawmakers are considering including as part of the mammoth National Defense Authorization Act, Reuters reported — say it would buoy the shrinking profits of local news outlets. The news industry’s profits have declined significantly in recent years, and Google and Facebook have come to dominate advertising markets — a key source of revenue for journalism outlets.

The News Media Alliance, a trade body representing the newspaper industry and a supporter of the proposal, described Meta’s threat as “undemocratic and unbecoming” in a statement Monday.

In a tweet, the trade body said that allowing outlets to collectively bargain with tech giants would let them negotiate fair compensation for the original content they provide to them, leveling an unfair playing field that has forced many journalism outlets to close down in recent years.

“Small and local publishers currently do not have the ability to negotiate these deals on their own, as the dominant tech platforms capture the majority of U.S. digital ad revenue, leaving local publishers with little to reinvest in the production of high-quality journalism,” the trade body said in an earlier statement backing the bill.

A model similar to the U.S. proposal, introduced by Australia last year over the fierce objections of the tech industry, empowered Canberra officials to compel tech platforms to pay news outlets in return for linking to their original content. Facebook, as Meta was then known, resisted Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code so vehemently that it even pulled news content from its social media feeds in the country completely, a news blackout that lasted several days and was strongly condemned by the Australian government.

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An Australian government report reviewing the law’s first year in effect, published in November, concluded that the code had been a success and suggested officials consider extending it to other online platforms too. More than 30 commercial agreements were struck between Australian news outlets and either Meta or Google, the report said, a likely outcome of the code. “At least some of these agreements have enabled news businesses to, in particular, employ additional journalists and make other valuable investments to assist their operations,” the report concluded.

Canadian lawmakers are debating similar measures that — if approved — would make theirs the second government in the world to force Meta and Google to negotiate commercial deals with news outlets whose content they distribute. The proposal would generate $241.7 million each year for Canadian news businesses, the parliamentary budget estimated in a report published in October.

The News Media Alliance said the willingness of Meta and Google to enter into deals with news outlets, as in Australia, demonstrated the commercial viability of the collective bargaining model outlined in the U.S. proposal.

“As the tech platforms compensate news publishers around the world, it demonstrates there is a demand and economic value for news,” the trade body said.

While the proposal has received bipartisan support in Congress, the attempt to move ahead with the provisions has divided industry bodies and groups.

More than two dozen organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Wikimedia Foundation, and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, signed a letter Monday objecting to accelerate the proposal. It “would create an ill-advised antitrust exemption for publishers and broadcasters,” the groups said, arguing also that the proposed model would unfairly advantage larger media conglomerates over the local outlets its proponents say it would benefit.

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