Thursday, September 10, 2020

Facebook and Australia’s News

Kim Lyons:

The country’s proposed News Media Bargaining Code law, which is in draft form at present, stemmed from a 2019 inquiry that found tech giants like Facebook and Google take too large a share of online advertising revenue from media organizations in Australia. The Treasurer of Australia ordered the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to develop a voluntary code of conduct which would force the platforms to pay media companies. The ACCC told the government it seemed “unlikely” that a voluntary agreement could be reached, however.

Under the proposed legislation, Google and Facebook would have to provide publishers with advance notice of changes to their algorithms, with penalties for failing to comply.

Ben Thompson:

The actual draft code for this new regulation is here; this is a bit impenetrable, as Australian law is generally enacted by hard-to-follow directions on inserting and excerpting various lines of text into existing regulation. The Explanatory Materials that accompany the code are more helpful, but for the purposes of this Daily Update, I’m going to focus on this Q&A document from the ACCC.


What makes Google and Facebook different from, say, Twitter or email, when it comes to directing traffic to news media sites? The answer I suspect isn’t volume: it’s the fact that Google and Facebook make a lot of money, of which the Australian news media business feels entitled to[…]


Do you see the absolute absurdity here? This language suggests that Google and Facebook are using their gatekeeping power to gouge news media businesses for sending traffic their way, when in fact they send traffic for free. As I noted in May, if anyone should be getting paid in this relationship it is Google and Facebook (although, to be clear, I am not saying Google and Facebook should actually be paid).

Facebook (Hacker News, Slashdot):

Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram.


The ACCC presumes that Facebook benefits most in its relationship with publishers, when in fact the reverse is true. News represents a fraction of what people see in their News Feed and is not a significant source of revenue for us. Still, we recognize that news provides a vitally important role in society and democracy, which is why we offer free tools and training to help media companies reach an audience many times larger than they have previously.


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Many people don't actually read articles, only their titles. It costs money to employ journalists, to find out what is happening, and articles' titles provide some or most of that information. Copyright does not apply to facts, only to expression... so media companies pay to gather the information, but FAANG companies, Reddit, and anyone else, can then use it without paying.

The law does need to be adjusted: things like GPT3 will only make things worse, since it will allow outfits like Google News to digest all the articles on a topic into copyright-free articles on the same topic. But without the traditional media, these FAANG companies would have no data to source, and would produce no news.

Finding a good solution is a non-trivial problem... In one dystopia, all information is protected behind paywalls, making half of the population even more ignorant than they are today. In another, no information that is not a PR release is produced. As the collapse of local news reporting throughout the US shows, we're nowhere near a solution.

It seems to me that the problem here lies even deeper than just "platform companies stealing content." The fact that traditional media companies depend on platform companies benevolently sending traffic to them shows that platform companies have displaced media companies as curators. The most important bit of information is no longer what your newspaper puts on the frontpage, it's what Facebook's algorithm decides to show you when you first open its app in the morning.

This devalues media companies, because people used to pay them for curation. Why should I pay a subscription to a few media companies when, instead of depending on two or three media companies to give me the news, I depend on Facebook's algorithm to send me to 50 different media companies? I'm not going to pay 50 different subscriptions so I can see all of the stuff Facebook shows me.

This, in turn, means that I mostly look at stuff from non-paywalled publications, which devalues paywalled content in the algorithm, which leads to Old Unix Geek's problem, where all of the information I see is from PR release reposters, or from state-sponsored outlets.

I think there could be a potential improvement here if platform companies paid media companies for clicks from platforms to media websites, and in turn, media companies turned off paywalls for these clicks. OTOH, that then also incentivizes platform companies to link to garbage outlets which don't have to be paid.

I base my position on the view I have that companies like Google and Facebook are marching the world into a near future where we'll all be living under martial law, in failing authoritarian states, as unchecked pollution erases humanity from existence.

My position is that I don't care about treating these companies fairly. I'm fine with Australia rewriting its constitution to build a big "Social Media interment camp" in the outback, and relocate C-Level execs from Facebook and Google to it for the next 200 years. Better them than me!

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