US Link Taxes Won’t Be Part of Year End “Must Pass” Legislation

The threat of link taxes in the US has been averted as they won’t be part of the year end “must pass” bills.

Canada is certainly not alone when it comes to debating the completely insane idea of link taxes. In the US, there is a bill known as the JCPA (or Journalism Competition and Preservation Act). As you would expect when it comes to bills like this, the act would do nothing to preserve journalism nor competition. Instead, it would allow news organizations to form cartels and create even more monopolies than before.

Competition in the news sector has been the subject of controversy for some time. One famous example is Sinclair Media gobbling up seemingly countless local media outlets and getting them all to push specific right wing narratives. This was showcased to terrifying effect in a famous Deadspin supercut:

This ultimately helped put media ownership in the spotlight. A perfectly reasonable question that comes up is whether the news you are getting from a local news outlet is actually local journalists gathering the news and putting together that story or simply a piece written by a corporate head in an office thousands of miles away trying to push a specific narrative (i.e. a political narrative).

Of course, pushing a political narrative isn’t the only way that conglomerate media outlets can uniformly push a specific message. Another way is to push a specific narrative that is in their own business interests as well. In Canada, we saw that to full effect when we saw the “Disappearing Headline” campaign where media outlets pushed narratives – very frequently false narratives – to push a business agenda that casts aside the media outlets credibility in favour of their own business interests.

Across the border and similar activities have been noted as happening. It’s left some observers to openly (and rightfully) question whether the media could even be trusted with their coverage of the JCPA. From TechDirt earlier this month:

We’ve been covering the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), which is a blatant handout by Congress in the form of a link tax that would require internet companies pay news orgs (mainly the vulture capitalist orgs that have been buying up local newspapers around the country, firing most of the journalists and living off of the legacy revenue streams) for… daring to send them traffic. We’ve gone over all the ways the bill is bad. We’ve gone over the fact that people in both the House and the Senate are (at this very moment) looking for ways to sneak it into law when no one’s looking. Indeed, there are reports that there will be an announcement tonight that it’s included as a part of the National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA).

The whole thing stinks of corruption. Politicians often rely on local newspapers for endorsements to win re-election campaigns, so they want to keep local papers happy. And it’s the perfect kind of corrupt handout for Congress. It’s not even using “taxpayer” funds. It’s forcing other companies — the hated internet companies — to foot the bill.

And, here’s the thing: the newspapers themselves are now stumping for the bill.

Newspapers nationwide are running editorials today in favor of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which passed a Senate committee with bipartisan support in September and has been waiting ever since for a floor vote.

Which… seems pretty sketchy when you think about it. The newspapers don’t seem likely to be running any editorials, or even op-eds, highlighting the problems and cronyism of the JCPA. Because, why would they? If it passes, it’s literally free cash for the companies.

What newspaper will run articles explaining how the JCPA won’t help journalists, but rather their private equity owners? What newspaper will run articles explaining how the JCPA fundamentally breaks the concept of the open internet where you can link anywhere you want for free? What newspaper will run op-eds explaining how the JCPA messes with copyright law in dangerous ways by implying a new right to demand a license for links or fair use snippets?

It’s efforts like newspapers pushing for a bill that benefits their bottom line and nothing else that has well and truly damaged the credibility of more traditional outlets. Indeed, there is very little motivation to point to the flaws of link tax legislation. It’s actually little wonder why more and more have turned to online sources – even if some of those sources are not that reliable (i.e. conspiracy theory websites and foreign troll farms). After all, reliability has become something that is harder and harder to come by from traditional news outlets over the last couple of years.

The question of reliability from the media is often confused with right wing extremism trying to damage the credibility of the media in general for failing to push a right wing narrative – however false it may be. However, as we’ve seen in recent years, traditional media outlets are far from being innocent on the question of credibility. The link tax legislation coverage from them is, of course, case in point.

Despite the push by mainstream outlets in the US, the JCPA has, mercifully, hit some significant roadblocks along the way. In September, the legislation was pulled after Ted Cruz pushed some amendments to add moderation ban provisions into the mix as well. While the bill eventually was brought back, it was basically dead in the water thanks, in part, to those amendments.

However, just because the bill is dead doesn’t mean that the bill is dead. One well known dirty tactic by politicians pushing legislation that few want is to attach the legislation to something that absolutely must pass. An activity that was largely portrayed in The Simpsons:

As noted, the effort, in this case, was the basically attach the JCPA into the NDAA which allows the government to budget for critical things like the military. If the NDAA is passed, so too would the JCPA. Recently, we learned a bit of good news. It appears that the JCPA won’t be paperclipped to the NDAA after all. From the EFF:

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) was a bad bill to begin with and somehow just got worse and worse with each iteration. Its best chance was being slipped into unrelated legislation that no one in Congress could afford to block.

Earlier this month, it seemed like that might happen. Proponents added this controversial, unconstitutional, poorly-conceived piece of legislation to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a routine but “must-pass” military budget bill. Thanks to all of you who spoke against this trick and forced the JCPA to be considered on its own merits.

While many like to frame the opposition to the JCPA as that of Big Tech, we know better. The union that represents many reporters was against it. Civil society and Big Tech opponents were against it. And most importantly, you were against it. You drove thousands of messages to Congress exposing this bill as dangerous to the free flow of information online.

As the EFF points out, the fight to put a stop to the American version of link taxes is not over. The threat was merely averted for now. Other must pass legislation is on the way and shady lawmakers are no doubt trying to figure out how to attach this terrible bill to one of those as well. At any rate, the organization thanked everyone for taking a stand against this effort. So, a victory is a victory. Might as well take it.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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