Australia is currently in the process of passing regulation which would force Google and Facebook to pay publishers for linking to their news articles, a controversial proposal which appears to go against the whole ethos of the web, which is in the end all about linking to pages for free. Importantly Australia would not allow Google to avoid paying the newspapers by simple delisting them from their index.
Today Microsoft’s president Brad Smith posted a long explanation of why they feel it would be good for not just Australia but the whole world to be forced to pay a tax to news organizations.
In the blog post, Smith explains the 4th Estate is a very important element in democracy, and that the weakness of news organizations and the strength of social media is what resulted in Donald Trump being able to convince tens of millions of Americans that he won the election he actually lost.
“It was far from unusual for a losing candidate to request a recount or take a dispute to court – both parts of the democratic process,” Smith noted, “But, this year, even after losing more than 50 lawsuits in a row, President Trump waged a sustained campaign that successfully persuaded tens of millions of his supporters that the election was rigged. Without this sustained disinformation barrage, it’s hard to imagine that January 6 would have become such a tragic day.”
Smith notes that while Google and Facebook has generated billions in revenue from aggregating news, since 2000, newsroom revenue in the United States has fallen by 70% and employment has been cut in half. More than 2,000 newspapers have closed entirely. In many places, local news has been decimated. The majority now got their news (and disinformation) from social media, often only reading the headlines and not even clicking through to the news website.
Microsoft notes that news publications have been powerless to fight back, due to the monopoly position of Google and Facebook, but that Microsoft has always supported paying publishers for news and that they are well prepared to do this on a large scale if they gain market share.
The ultimate question is what values we want the tech sector and independent journalism to serve. Yes, Australia’s proposal will reduce the bargaining imbalance that currently favors tech gatekeepers and will help increase opportunities for independent journalism. But this a defining issue of our time that goes to the heart of our democratic freedoms. As we wrote in 2019, “The tech sector was born and has grown because it has benefited from these freedoms. We owe it to the future to help ensure that these values survive and even flourish long after we and our products have passed from the scene.”
Smith’s argument can be read in detail here, but it is hard to argue that Google has not become a trillion-dollar company from the work of others, often decimating their business in the process. Microsoft may be right that the time has now come for Google and Facebook to give back.