Facebook Pulls the Trigger, Says It Won’t Pay News Organizations for Links (In the US)

Facebook was thinking about it, but is now saying it will cut off news organizations in the US. Are others next?

Facebook is saying that it will cut off American news organizations from payments and dropping news links entirely. The move, on so many levels, is entirely unsurprising. The whole concept of paying for getting linked to has always been absurd from the very beginning.

On the most fundamental level, getting paid for being linked to is absurd. There is no precedence in copyright in any other discipline where people who get referenced to also receive a payment for being referenced. If anything, people’s published work is, at closest, paid for with the access to that material (such as scholarly journals in a University setting). Even then, there is controversy as to why we should be paywalling knowledge in the first place from an educational perspective. Still, no one who published a paper that referenced another source was expected to doll money out for the simple act of referencing that other material.

Now, throw in the Internet and how it references material by default (re: linking) and the concept becomes even more ludicrous. The Internet is, indeed, an incredibly noisy place – more so now than even 5 or 10 years ago. For a vast majority of websites, traffic and users act as the global currency. Sources linking to each other provides benefits to both the publisher and the publisher referencing that material. For the publisher, they get the traffic associated with being linked to. For the publisher referencing that material, if they are referencing good sources, they also gain credibility that their work is reliable. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Always has been, always will be. There is a reason we call it the “World Wide Web”.

When a site gets more traffic, they not only build up more credibility and brand recognition, but also ad revenue, subscriptions, or more people to see your donation jar. Whatever the model, most, if not, all, benefits from increased traffic. More impressions (and clicks) on ads generally translates to more ad revenue. The more people see your subscription services, the more people who might consider paying for those premium services. The more people who value your content on a free site and see your tip jar, the more likely someone is going to be willing to chip in.

The benefits of being linked to are wide ranging and can very easily help with the health of a given website. None of this is really new. It’s pretty much common knowledge for people who know how the Internet generally works. So, when news organizations started demanding payment for linking, there was very good reason why so many experts in the field gave a collective, “Dude! What are you doing?”

These calls are generally known as link taxes. While some play semantics and try to split hairs over the definition, the truth is is that a link tax is a requirement for payment for linking. Whether these charges come from the government or a private entity doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, a site is being required to pay for linking to a third party. It’s why we used the phrase so much over the last few years. Generally, a link tax is a concept that actively discourages linking. It’s backwards thinking that defies pretty much all logic.

A website that discourages linking to its own site is the equivalent of sports organizers saying that they need fewer fans in live games, or television executives saying that the big problem in their industry is that there is too many people with televisions, or the music industry saying that artists have too many fans and they need to discourage people from being interested in their music. News organizations saying they need fewer links to their site is basically news organizations saying they need fewer people reading their news articles.

Of course, the non-sense didn’t even end there. While lobbying governments to push for link taxes, some went to the extreme measures of pushing blatant misinformation campaigns. One of the most common nonsensical comments is the idea that Facebook and Google linking to their news articles is akin to them stealing their work. Some even skip the whole fact that it’s merely a link and a snippet and falsely claim that these large platforms are re-publishing their work without permission – something that has demonstrably not happened. Not only did news organizations mislead the public, but also sacrificed their credibility as an unbiased news source in the process.

In the early days, Facebook and Google had the right idea. The response was that the concept is ridiculous and if they are being required to link to news organizations, then they simply won’t link to news organizations. That was the move to make because, as we knew all along, publishers need Facebook and Google far more than Facebook and Google needs the publishers. For many, the end result was going to go one of two ways: The link tax is abandoned altogether or news organizations won’t get linked to, causing them to realize what a horrible mistake this all was.

The thing that threw almost everyone off guard was how Facebook and Google actually folded despite holding all of the cards in this. While some in the media world love to say that this was some sort of “come to Jesus” moment where the major platforms realize that this is how the world works today, that assertion is basically a lie. The truth in the matter of this is much more likely that Facebook and Google saw this as an anti-competitive tool for other social media networks and search engines. When the cost to entry in those markets is several billion dollars, very few would be willing to roll the dice and take on those giants.

As observers, including us, suspected, though, this seemingly unorthodox solution to this problem has quite a few problems associated with it. If one country passes link tax laws, other countries will pass similar laws. This means that more publishers will come running to Google and Facebook with their hands out demanding money. What’s more is that when more countries have a system like this, greed tends to take over and publishers demand more money for links. This is exactly what started happening late last year.

None of this is really a surprise as many were seeing this scenario playing out ever since Google and Facebook thought they could manipulate the situation in their favour. Instead, costs are only destined to go higher and higher for something that was really only a small part of their business in the first place. The longer time went on, and more countries pushed link taxes, the more obvious this problem became. There’s only so many members of the media you can let freeload off of your business before it becomes unsustainable.

The creaking of the weight of more publishers piling on to these platforms demanding payment became very noticeable last month when Facebook began openly purging news links from its main feed altogether. The stark number of 4 in every 1,000 links going to news outlets only put the need (or lack thereof) to carry links to news organizations into sharp focus. What’s more is the fact that these public contemplation’s really suggested that Facebook might actually cut off news organizations off from the money teet.

Well, for those who think that this whole thing was just a bluff, it seems that this move has become a reality. Mike Masnick of Techdirt is pointing to an Axios “article” (seriously Axios, drop the silly format and write a properly formatted news article):

Meta on Tuesday began telling its news partners in the U.S. that the company no longer plans to pay publishers for their content to run on Facebook’s News Tab, sources tell Axios.

Masnick commented with this in response:

This should not be a surprise. For many years now, news publishers who refused to adapt to the changing times and changing news ecosystem blamed Facebook for their own failures to adapt, and then started demanding that Facebook (and Google) just give them money. We warned, repeatedly, that this was a dangerous game that wouldn’t end well,

And, yet, all we’ve heard for years from many in the news world is that Facebook and Google needed to pay journalism organizations. Indeed, Rupert Murdoch got so focused on this that he convinced Australia to force those companies to pay — and the idea is being proposed in many other places as well.

And, so, now Facebook is realizing that news on its platform is much more of a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have.”

Arguably, the only real surprise in all of this is the fact that Facebook/Meta and Google ever went along with this whole insane idea in the first place – and that it took two years to realize that the whole thing was a mistake. Indeed, though, the outcome was not a matter if “of”, but a matter of “when”.

This decision, of course, affects American publishers. While these negotiations and the possibility of having a link tax in the US was in its infancy, the fact is, publishers in other countries should be sh**ing bricks right now. Not only is there no law to force these negotiations in the first place, but even if a law were to be put in place, it would be unconstitutional thanks to provisions of compelled speech. If Facebook is finally saying that this idea is ridiculous in the US, there is probably not much stopping Facebook from doing the same thing elsewhere.

Probably the only thing stopping these platforms from pulling the plug on this bad experiment right away would probably revolve around whatever contracts were signed. If those contracts contain provisions that say that payments will happen for the next year (or the next couple of years), then there would need to be a risk assessment to make about the price of terminating such a contract early rather than just running out such a contract and never renewing. It really depends on what deals were actually signed in the first place.

Still, if the US is the first domino to fall in all of this, other countries aren’t going to be far behind. The timing would depend on what the situation is in the respective countries. Organizations without a deal now might see that the window to strike a deal is actually closing. Those with a deal will no doubt see that their contracts have an expiration date. While some outlets were able to make off with considerable cash, that money stream is no doubt drying up fast.

The unfortunate thing is the fact that there is collateral damage in all of this. Small outlets (such as ours) who had no interest in demanding payments for links, will find it very difficult to get a link to their site shared on such a platform. When a platform has so much traffic that could have been taken advantage of, those organizations will invariably get left out in the cold over a controversy they had nothing to do with. It’s a major wound in written journalism that was brought on by the major publishers. Yes, major publishers shot themselves in the foot, but not before potentially killing some of the smaller outlets in the process.

Where things go from here is difficult to say. There is, obviously, no timeline to really predict. Still, we do know that this move could very easily signal the beginning of the end of link taxes. Unless there is another major twist in this story that changes the landscape again, this story might very well be in the late stages of development.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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