Pluralistic: 18 Apr 2022

Today's links

A row of newspaper boxes on a lonely sidewalk; their windows are filled with the 'falling binary' Matrix waterfall effect.

Podcasting "Big Tech Isn’t Stealing News Publishers’ Content" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my Medium column, "Big Tech Isn’t Stealing News Publishers’ Content," on how the news industry's focus on charging tech firms to link to them is totally misguided, and misses the real issue: the rigging of the ad market.

Countries all over the world – France, Australia, Brazil and now Canada (Bill C-11)- have fallen in love with the idea that the answer to the news media's woes is to create a new licensable copyright over "snippets" of news that users post to social media.

Every country's copyright system has a suite of "limitations and exceptions" (like fair use and fair dealing) that ensure that copyright is compatible with free expression. The right to quote the news historically fell squarely in this category: after all, it's only the news if we're talking about it (otherwise it's a secret).

For decades, our public squares have been moving online. The pandemic accelerated and cemented this process. Today, when we talk about the news, we probably do so on an online platform, and, thanks to monopolization, the number of platforms where this takes place is vanishingly small and they are extraordinarily profitable.

Governments (correctly) observe that democracies need a free press, and they (correctly) observe that the news media is in trouble, and they (correctly) conclude that monopolies in the tech sector have something to do with this.

Then they come to the (alarmingly wrong) conclusion that the way to resolve all these issues is to create a new paracopyright that lets news companies charge for the right to talk about the news.

What's wrong with this conclusion? Well, it's a disaster from a human rights perspective, for starters. Remember, if you have the right to license discussion of the news, you have the right to withhold that license – that is, the right to decide who can debate, explain and analyze your own reporting.

But it also seriously misapprehends the way that tech firms rip off the news business. Quoting the news isn't a copyright violation, so it's just wrong to say that Big Tech is stealing the news companies' content. Not just wrong, but badly misguided, because the reality is that Big Tech is stealing publishers' money.

I'm talking about ad-fraud. The ad industry has been cornered by the Facebook/Google duopoly, through a blatantly illegal process that remains a thoroughly criminal enterprise to this day:

  • Anticompetitive acquisitions:

  • Extinguishing privacy-respecting rivals:

  • Universal, nonconsensual surveillance, including surveillance of people who never signed up for or use their services:

  • Clandestine agreements to rig the ad-bidding market:

  • Routine accounting fraud about every fact of ad-tech (who pays, how much, for what, how many times ads are shown, to whom):

That puts nearly half of the ad spending into the pockets of these two Big Tech companies. It's the biggest fraud on the internet, worth more than all the crypto rug-pulls and ransomware attacks combined. If publishers were able to participate in a fraud-free ad market, they'd get lots more money, and it would be money that they deserved.

How would we unrig the ad market? There are lots of steps that governments and regulators could take right now, interventions that won't take years or decades the way breakups will (though breakups are also a good idea!):

  • Ban ad transactions where a single company acts as the agent for both the buyer and seller;

  • Create Sarbanes-Oxley-style criminal penalties for accounting frauds;

  • Mandate audited transparency reports disclosing the true facts of ads – how much was collected and disbursed, and for what;

  • Create a meaningful statutory damages regime for ad fraud, including bid rigging;

  • Mandate open header bidding;

  • Ban surveillance advertising, thus eliminating Big Tech's "data advantage" at the stroke of a pen, and kickstarting a new market in contextual ads (based on what's being read, not who's reading);

  • Mandate disclosure of the criteria used to uprank or downrank news material in search results and social media feeds.

Doing this stuff will pay all publishers, without having to create the dangerous right to license discussion of the news. So why are the big media companies so disinterested in it?

In a nutshell: because Big News is every bit as rotten as Big Tech, and the news giants have been gripped by corrupt financial mania for even longer than the tech sector. Long before the commercial internet, an orgy of corporate raider buyouts hollowed out the newspapers, merging them, killing local reporting, consolidating sales, laying off national beat reporters. The new corporate owners raided the companies' cash reserves and sold off their physical plant to pay themselves, exposing the papers to rent shocks.

That's how the newspapers – which weathered the telegraph, radio, TV, cable and satellite – went into the internet era with no cash reserves to experiment with, precariously dependent on the landlords they'd sold their buildings to.

The ensuing, inevitable failure of the news companies to adapt to the internet made them vulnerable to still more rapacious finance fuckery. Private equity rollups have turned once-great papers into glorified grocery store fliers with skeleton news crews operating out of remote brick bunkers the size of a Chipotle:

The billionaires who are looting the husks of our papers aren't patricians from local wealthy families with a sense of civic duty. They're far-flung vampires who have raised prices, lowered quality, smashed their unions and slashed wages:

These far-right ideologues front for kettles of vulture capitalists whose shamelessness knows no bounds. They are capable of devoting whole issues to extolling the virtues of completely unregulated capitalism:

Even as they are demanding government bailouts:

They style themselves as saviors of the news, but then they buy up national newspapers and refashion them as promotional vehicles for their online casino businesses:

The modern media baron is no defender of democracy; they're a threat to democracy:

And these eminently guillotinable hatemongers love snippet taxes. Take Rupert Murdoch, who used Australia's snippet tax as leverage to cut a private sweetheart deal with Google and Facebook. That deal left the regional indie papers – filling the vacuum left behind when Murdoch bought and killed the local papers – out in the cold:

In France, the biggest media companies arranged a snippet tax system that required newspapers to opt into Google Showcase, increasing the importance of Google to the news companies' futures:

So why don't big news companies want to unrig the ad market? Why are they focused on snippet taxes? Because they know that fair ad markets will benefit everyone, including the independent press – while snippet taxes are a fine basis for arranging cozy deals between media and tech monopolists.

Big Tech isn't the answer to the news crisis. A snippet tax doesn't promote the democratic function of the press – rather, it helps Big Tech and Big News consolidate their positions, keeping smaller news and tech companies at bay.

After all, any snippet tax that's hefty enough to make a difference to the news is a snippet tax that a new tech company – say, a co-op or a nonprofit – can't afford to pay.

It may feel like unrigging the ad market is an impossible task, but there's never been a better time to do it. Public sentiment has turned against commercial surveillance. Advertisers have wised up to the fact that the ad market is ripping them off, too.

But we need news workers to get onboard. The snippet taxes in Europe and Australia never would have succeeded without independent media outlets and beloved journalists promoting them. They got snookered: making media giants more profitable won't translate into raises for reporters or new revenue for indies.

We have to get past the pathology that's plagued the culture industries, in which workers resign themselves to the idea that the best they can hope for is to cheer on their own monopolists, who might drop a few crumbs as they gorge on their winnings.

We can – we must – hope for more than a slightly different division of the loot among tech and media monopolists.

Here's the podcast episode:

And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's a link to my podcast feed:

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago The Street Finds its Own Uses for the Law of Unintended Consequences

#20yrsago Order of the Phoenix on hold indefinitely

#20yrsago The Internet was made for cussin’

#20yrsago Kid wrongly imprisoned for bomb threat – error due to Daylight Savings Time

#20yrsago Microsoft tells schools: refuse computers without their orginal paperwork

#15yrsago Why the shootings mean that we must support my politics

#15yrsago Canada’s universities and colleges capitulate to copyright strong-arm tactics

#15yrsago Why Debt is creeping into so many science fiction discussions

#10yrsago New EU ACTA reviewer also recommends not signing it, calls ACTA a threat to civil liberties

#10yrsago Florida standardized science tests are a disaster

#10yrsago Evidence of Britain’s colonial crimes revealed, including orders to cover up evidence of further atrocities

#10yrsago Why a pro-SOPA MPAA technologist changed sides and went to work for ISOC

#10yrsago Inventor of the Web condemns UK Internet surveillance plans

#5yrsago Internet Archive: “DRM for the Web is a Bad Idea”

#5yrsago Theresa May calls UK snap elections for June 8

#5yrsago Hackers shut down stalkerware companies that spy for spouses and parents, delete and dump their files

#5yrsago Customs and Border Patrol can’t find qualified applicants for Trump’s immigration crackdown

#5yrsago Wells Fargo woulda gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for that darn trade union

#5yrsago Independent repair guy on the planned obsolescence of Apple products

#5yrsago Read: Chapter 3 of Walkaway, in which a university rises from the ashes

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 501 words (81731 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EXPERT REVIEW

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Big Tech Isn’t Stealing News Publishers’ Content

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Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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