Pluralistic: How to save the news from Big Tech (18 May 2023)

Today's links

EFF's banner for the save news series; the word 'NEWS' appears in pixelated, gothic script in the style of a newspaper masthead. Beneath it in four entwined circles are logos for breaking up ad-tech, ending surveillance ads, opening app stores, and end-to-end delivery.

How to save the news from Big Tech (permalink)

It's no longer controversial to claim that Big Tech is a parasite on the news business. But there's still a raging controversy over the nature of the parasitism, and, much more importantly, what to do about it.

This week on EFF's Deeplinks blog, I kick off a new series on the abusive relationship between Big Tech and the news, analyzing four different dirty practices and proposing policy answers to all four:

The context here is that various governments around the world have taken notice of the tech/news problem, and are chasing a counterproductive "solution" – the "link tax," where tech firms are required to pay for the links and short snippets their users or news search-tools make to news-stories. In some cases, the "tax" is indirect: tech is required to negotiate a payment to make up for other misdeeds (like ripping publishers off with ad fraud).

You can argue that this isn't a link tax, it's just pressure to bargain, but because these rules typically ban platforms from simply blocking publishers' content if they can't reach an agreement, they become link taxes: "You must carry links, and you must pay the sites you link to" isn't meaningfully different from "You must pay for linking to those sites."

This "must-carry" dimension – requiring tech firms to publish links to sites they don't want to link to – has lots of things wrong with it, but in the US, must-carry has a showstopper bug: it contravenes the First Amendment and any law with a must-carry provision is unlikely to survive a court challenge. So people who care about protecting the news from Big Tech predators – like me – need to try other approaches.

But no matter where you are, requiring tech to pay fees to news is the wrong approach. For one thing, it's a solution that only works for so long as Big Tech stays big: that means that efforts to break up Big Tech, force it to pay taxes and fines, and limit its profits (say, through privacy laws that end surviellance ads) are incompatible with link taxes and adjacent proposals.

The big risk here is that news outlets will become partisans in the fight against shrinking Big Tech, because news companies' destinies will be linked to the tech giants' own fate. More immediately, there's the risk that news companies that depend on negotiating payments from Big Tech will not act as the effective watchdogs we need them to be.

That's not just a hypothetical risk: in Canada, Big Tech entered into negotiations with the Toronto Star – the country's widest-circulating paper – ahead of a proposed "news bargaining code" that was working its way through Parliament. Once that settlement was reached, the Star abruptly killed "Defanging Tech" its excellent critical series on the tech giants it had just climbed into bed with:

Another important risk from "bargaining codes" and link taxes is that they tend to favor the largest and/or most sensationalist news companies, who have the leverage to bargain for the highest sums. In Australia, Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp bargained for a sizable payment from the tech sector – but then it laid off its news workers. Merely transferring money to media giants doesn't mean an increase in investment in news. That's especially true in the Canadian context, where a US vulture-capitalist fund bought out the National Post and its nationwide affiliates and then loaded the chain up with debt, while hacking newsroom staff to the bone and beyond. There's no reason to think that tech payments to the Post will go anywhere except to the financial speculators who are its major creditors.

Meanwhile, the proposed US version, JCPA, has a payout schedule based on the number of clicks a news outlet generates for each platform – a metric that will see the lion's share of money going to the far-right clickbait sites that push conspiracy theories, disinformation, and culture-war nonsense – and see floods of social media traffic as a result.

Any solution to the tech/news conflict should benefit the news, and the workers who produce it – not the shareholders of the giant companies whose short-sighted consolidation, mass firings, and sell-offs of physical plant created the hyper-concentrated, brittle news sector of today:

Luckily for the news, there's a whole bushel of policy levers we can yank on to make the news better, stronger, and more sustainable, even as tech monopolies and the surveillance they rely on are consigned to the scrapheap of history.

In this series – which will publish weekly over the next four weeks – I'll dig into four policy prescriptions for making a healthier news that is free of Big Tech, not dependent on it:

I. Break up ad-tech: Following the lead of Senator Mike Lee's AMERICA Act, we must end the ad-tech sector's self-dealing. Ad-tech scoops up 51% of every ad-dollar. That's thanks to the ad-tech companies practice of offering marketplaces in which they represent both advertisers and publishers: that's like a game where the referee pays the salaries of the head coaches for both teams. If we pare back the ad-tech tax to, say 10% and split the difference between advertisers and publishers, then every publisher will see an immediate 20% increase in their top-line revenue, without having to "bargain" for a "voluntary" payment from tech companies.

II. Ban surveillance ads: America is long overdue for a federal privacy law with a private right of action. When we finally get such a law, surveillance advertising is dead. Ad-tech has long argued that people like ads, so long as they're "relevant," a state that can only be attained through continuous, invasive surveillance. In reality, no one consents to surveillance – which is why, when Apple gave its users a one-click opt-out from spying, 94% blocked spying (unfortunately, Apple only blocks its competitors from spying on Apple customers; even if you opt out of spying on your Apple device, Apple will continue to spy on you).

The natural successor to surveillance ads is context ads: ads based on the content you're looking at, not the surveillance data an ad-tech platform amassed on you without your consent. Context ads are intrinsically better for publishers: no publisher will ever know as much about a reader's behavior as a spying ad-tech platform, but no ad-tech platform will ever know as much about a publisher's own content than the publisher does.

That means that the benefits of a ban on surveillance ads wouldn't just be an end to creepy internet spying – it would also transfer power from tech companies to news companies, online performers and other creative workers.

III. Open up app stores: 30% of every dollar spent on app-based digital subscriptions is claimed by two companies, Google and Apple, the mobile duopoly. This app store tax is a pure transfer from news to tech. The EU's Digital Markets Act and the proposed US Open App Markets Act are both designed to kill the app store tax. Dropping mobile payment processing fees from 30% to the industry standard 2-5% will instantaneously increase the revenue from every subscriber by 25% or more.

IV. Make social media end-to-end: Tech platforms' predictable enshittification strategy always ends with publishers no longer being able to reach their subscribers unless they pay to "boost" their content. Social media companies claim to be facilitators of the connection between publishers and audiences, but in reality, they take those audiences hostage and ransom them off to publishers. An end-to-end rule for social media would require platforms to reliably deliver material published by accounts to their own followers, who asked to see that material.

The debate over news and tech starts from the erroneous – and dangerous – assumption that the platforms are stealing the news media's content, by letting their users talk about, quote and link to the news. This isn't theft: if you're not allowed to talk about the news, then it's not the news – it's a secret.

The platforms are stealing from news, though: they're not stealing content, they're stealing money. Between sky-high ad-tech rakes, app store taxes, and ransom demands to reach your own subscribers, the tech companies have grabbed the majority of money generated by news workers and the companies they work for.

Ending this theft will produce a more sustainable and robust source of funding for the news – without compromising news companies' ability to aggressively hold tech to account, and without propping up financialized, hollowed-out media monopolies at the expense of an independent press.

(Image: EFF, CC BY 3.0)

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Top UK government officials tamper with inquest into Brit assassinated by Russian spies in London, suppress evidence

#10yrsago Associated Press quietly nukes its absurd DRM-for-news system

#10yrsago Black Code: how spies, cops and crims are making cyberspace unfit for human habitation

#10yrsago India’s OMICS Publishing Group threatens scholarly critic with $1 billion lawsuit, jail time

#5yrsago People don’t care about “Net Neutrality”: they care about “internet freedom” which is the same as “freedom”

#5yrsago After his viral racist rant, Aaron Schlossberg’s law office lost its lease

#5yrsago Serial racist: for years, New Yorkers have been videoing their encounters with ranting racist lawyer Aaron Schlossberg

#5yrsago War criminal Henry Kissinger: “AI is the end of the Enlightenment”

#5yrsago Congress wants to extend the copyright on some sound recordings to 144 years

#1yrago A(nother) way in which Facebook is the 21st Century's tobacco industry

Colophon (permalink)

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