Columnist Says Facebook News Removal Means Link Tax Needed In Canada

After Facebook removed their news feed in Australia in response to the link tax, a Toronto Star columnist says that this means Canada needs a link tax law.

Late last week, Facebook removed their news feeds for Australian users. This in response to the Australian government pushing for a link tax law on the platform in the first place. The move, however damaging to big publishing, was essentially the logical course of action. Facebook itself admitted that news is a minor feature on Facebook and having to pay for linking to news sources means an added unnecessary liability. After all, nowhere else do people have to pay just to reference other material, so why should Facebook be any different. Now, Australian users don’t have a news feed anymore because of this ill-conceived notion that publishers should have their cake and eat it too.

From the Canadian perspective, this should be a major warning shot. This over top of the fact that Facebook directly warned Canada not to institute a link tax law. These warnings are not a bluff and the Australian case proves that Facebook is not afraid to use the nuclear option.

A metaphorical way of looking at this is that Canada is watching Australia put their hand on the hot skillet and is getting burned. Perhaps the lesson here is that Canada shouldn’t also put their hand on the hot skillet. That red hot glowing means that it burns. For one columnist, though, the takeaway lesson for him is that Canada should enthusiastically smash their hand on that hot skillet and do so quickly. One caveat is that this is being published on the Toronto Star which has a known anti-tech bias, so you do have to take that into consideration. Navneet Alang opines with the following:

But the whole conversation was put into stark relief when, in response to the possibility of new legislation, Facebook chose the nuclear option. In a blog post, it announced it would block all Australian news content from its platform, both within the country and internationally. In a flash, all Aussie news content became inaccessible on what is perhaps the largest single network of information distribution in human history.

From the outset here, we are already off to a bad start here. It’s difficult to discern what he means by the largest single network. The Internet as a whole is arguably the largest single network of information. Facebook, however, is one of the largest social media platforms. Facebook is not the Internet. Australian’s can still access their news on the Internet. The problem is that accessing the news via Facebook is now incredibly difficult. With that wording, there is a bit of confusion as to what is even being talked about here.

It is a testament to just how influential and resistant to regulation big tech can be. The issue here, with Google capitulating and Facebook drawing a stark, hard line in the sand, reveals the centrality of these digital platforms to contemporary culture.

In this excerpt, we are confusing the issue again. what actually happened is that Facebook decided to say no to a link tax and actively chose to delete their news feeds in response. It was a decision made by a private company at the end of the day. Facebook is under no obligation to carry news. They carried the news as an added feature. A real honest question here is if Facebook chooses not to carry news, is it really “resistant to regulation”? If anything, Facebook is actually complying with the regulation. If there’s no news on the platform, theirs no link tax to pay. It’s kind of the end of the story right then and there.

Nevertheless, we continue on:

And with Facebook in particular forcing the issue, what seems clear is that government intervention of some kind is necessary,

No it does not. Facebook isn’t dodging any regulation. It is, in fact, complying with the regulation. The issue isn’t that Facebook is breaking any laws by taking this action. The issue is that big publishing isn’t getting everything they want out of this debate. That is two completely different things. Again, Facebook is under no obligation to allow news to be shared on their platform. Even if you combine regulatory requirements to not only carry the news, but also force the platform to pay for what is fair dealing (as insane as that already is), such a legal requirement will easily open the government up to a constitutional challenge. Even if Facebook does lose in the courts over this,then Facebook could simply block Canada entirely which will cause even further damage than what is being seen in Australia.

both to sustain news,

A real question is, “Why is Facebook under obligation to financially support big publishing?” The correct answer is, “They aren’t.” It is not Facebooks job to pad the bank accounts of news outlets and it never was. Saying otherwise is, at best, exceedingly entitled to something you are not entitled to. We know that news outlets suffered from COVID-19 when advertisers pulled out due to mandated shutdowns. If anything, that is an argument for government to put in place financial aid for these news outlets. Saying that Facebook has to take the losses by big publishing is, at best, completely ridiculous.

but also to challenge the unprecedented amount of power that tech platforms now have.

This tacked on to the end of this argument is conflating two completely different issues. Challenging how much power the likes of Facebook has is a completely separate issue from instituting a link tax law. You want to talk about how Facebook might have too much power in advertising networks? Knock yourself out. Do you want to talk about how much control Facebook has over personal information (and subsequently how its stored or sold)? Fly at it. Do you want to talk about how Facebook has been buying up startups to keep competition at bay? I’m happy for you. That’s another excellent point of discussion. What does this have to do with the link tax law? Zilch. Nada. Nothing.

Among other things, the Australian legislation proposes that Google and Facebook compensate news publishers for the distribution of their content, and forces them into arbitration if a deal cannot be reached.

Generally speaking, this is not how either Facebook or Google works. The comment “the distribution of their content” implies that the two are taking all of the content and republishing it verbatim. Unless there are specific instances that we aren’t aware of, that is not what the two networks do. At most, Google posts a link, a sentence or two as a snippet, a postage stamp sized thumbnail of a picture, and a headline which links to the source. That’s it. That very easily falls into the realm of fair dealing.

Facebook pretty much does the same thing. Just look at our news feed on Facebook. What do you see? A thumbnail for a picture. The headline. A very short snippet. Naturally, there is also a way to click through to the original source too. Same deal. It’s obviously fair dealing what is being posted up there. Furthermore, we posted it up there. We wanted our stuff up there and we actually put work into making this happen. How is what is in our news feed not fair dealing and implied permission?

As far as we are concerned, the above excerpt is misleading.

While other deals in countries like France have worked out to an equivalent of about $7,500 (Cnd) per working journalist, the Australian approach is closer to $40,000 per journalist. That ultimately is what’s at stake here: whether news publishers get a cut of tech’s revenue after they both overtook the ad business, but also undercut news organizations’ revenue.

These comments are just bizarre. The implication here is that tech giants simply did a better job at creating ad networks. Therefore, news publishers are somehow entitled to the tech giants money. It’s so backwards, it’s laughable. It would be the same things as me saying that I write tech news all the time, but Navneet Alang writes for a bigger news outlet discussing the same thing. Therefore, I deserve a cut of revenue the Toronto Star earns because that is clearly my money in the first place and the Toronto Star is being a mean monopolist for not sharing. If I even got close to this thinking, I would rightfully be laughed out of the room and painted as a complete idiot. How is the argument in the snippet any different.

That there is a deal at all, however, suggests there is something of a symbiotic relationship between the news and tech. News companies get a massive way of distributing their content, while digital platforms get to be the place people turn to for their window on the world.

This is probably one of the few times in the column that there is an apparent moment of clarity here. That is exactly what is happening here. Google and Facebook both allowed news to be shared in a digital world. This has allowed readers in the online world to continue consuming their content. Google didn’t necessarily have to set up Google News, but they did. The benefits for publishers was enormous such that they weren’t going to get left behind as the world moved towards the digital environment. That alone is reason to be grateful for the existence of Google News in the first place. Simply put, publishers got a leg up on things and could find ways to viably continue producing news online.

Unfortunately, this moment of clarity lasted all of one paragraph. We were stuck with this for a follow-up:

The argument from news publishers is thus that, although they do in fact receive the benefit of a readership through social media and search, Facebook and Google’s use of news helps them continue to rake in billions in ad revenue, while news publishers are left — well, pick your adjective — decimated, smashed, wounded, limping.

Yeah, we’re pretty much headdesking it too at this point. Since it’s clear he doesn’t actually use Google News, let’s provide a nice screenshot of an example of Google News:

This is what we see when we perform a Google News search result for GameStop. We are not using any ad blocking technology when producing this screen shot here. Spot the ads. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

None? Exactly. Google is providing this service without ads and, therefore, is not even getting any revenue for these results. Does Google get ad revenue at all? Yes. Where? Partly in general searches across the web – which has nothing to do with services that specialize in linking with news. So, saying that Google is raking in billions from using news is, uh, not accurate.

Facebook is, of course, slightly different. Here’s a screenshot of when you see on Facebook when not logged in:

When logged in, you can access a news feed which looks something like this:

While no ads can be seen on those screenshots, there is the underlying issue that Facebook has been known to sell personal information to advertisers. That, of course, is changing as scrutiny intensifies over the practice, but that is known to happen. It’s doubtful that this is the point being originally raised because that easily leaves open the counterpoint that this ad revenue is across the board and not specifically for news in the first place. As a result, that argument pretty much falls flat anyway.

For one, the platforms aren’t actually making money specifically from news being aggregated or shared. Even if that was the case, there’s no argument to be made that the platforms should automatically be forced to pay publishers for it given that the activity is fair use. For another, publishers are actually getting a huge benefit from having their content aggregated and shared in the first place. More eyeballs on their page means more ad revenue, subscriptions, etc. To say that publishers get nothing out of this is actually false.

The column closes out with this last tidbit:

It is, however, helpful to put things in context. As the director of Columbia’s journalism school, Emily Bell, put it on Twitter, Facebook “is not a consistently pro-democratic company, and it is not an accountability platform.” More than just that, she continues, “it is an advertising company which has spent a significant amount of money lobbying to news industry, and working on avoiding external regulation.”

We are all too happy to point out that we aren’t exactly huge fans of Facebook. There is a lot of criticism that the platform rightfully receives. Whether it’s issues of pro-conservative bias or the litany of privacy issues Facebook faces so many times over. That’s just a small taste of the controversy the platform has garnered in the first place. Facebook is, in fact, a platform that has huge accountability problems.

At the same time, the link tax that is so enthusiastically pushed is not even close to being in the same category as Facebook being “not a consistently pro-democratic company”. The push for the link tax law is basically big publishing demanding a free lunch in all of this. Further, we’ve seen more or less lobbying from the Toronto Star to institute a link tax law as far back as April of last year. So, this is kind of a situation of “pot calling the kettle black” here.

The justifications for a link tax law in this piece are, at best, quite weak. Some of the wording seems to be meant to confuse unrelated controversies and lump them into the link tax debate when a connection doesn’t really exist in the first place.

At the end of the day, what we are seeing is a very real threat that Facebook could nuke news feeds in Canada. Those threats, as proven in Australia, are not idle. Facebook is well within their rights to block news feeds as they are a private company. Their website, their rules. With the potential link tax getting closer to being tabled, Canada is already on track to driving the media industry off the cliff. The call in this piece appears to be “full steam ahead”. It’s a really really bad idea and always has been. Doubling down on a really really bad idea isn’t going to make things any better.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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