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Digital media is more often criticized for spreading false or inaccurate information, rather than dispensing well-researched, hard-hitting journalism. But when media platforms like Google and Facebook try to provide access to legitimate sources, problems still can arise. In particular, links from their sites to conventional media sources rarely involve any payment, which means that the companies benefit from expert content, without doing anything to support the efforts required to product that content.

In Australia, legislators have decided the situation is untenable and plan to propose regulations to force both Facebook and Google (through its parent company Alphabet) to pay for any news articles, sourced from other entities, that appear on their sites. Although the precise calculations of these payments remain to be determined, the social media companies reacted swiftly and negatively to the announcements.

According to their arguments, conventional media sources and journalism outlets benefit tremendously from the symbiotic relationship, because Facebook and Google drive substantial traffic to their sites. Of course, by including good content, the social media sites attract more users, which enables them to charge higher rates to advertisers on their platforms. But beyond those benefits, it also means that more users are increasingly likely to find links to the content and click on it, leading them to the journalists’ sites.

Despite holding firm to these arguments, continued complaints from media producers have led to some concessions from the social media companies. For example, Google reportedly is negotiating contracts with publishers to pay some fee for their content, and Facebook agreed to pay to license any news headlines and content that would appear in its own news aggregator.

Australia wants more than these voluntary efforts, but it also may be at risk of overplaying its hand. When Spain sought to force Google to pay publishers, Google just closed its dedicated news service for that nation. When France tried a different tactic, arguing that Google was required under EU copyright law to pay for the content previews it provided, Google responded by changing its methods and limiting previews just to article titles, thus avoiding the requirement.

The power of the big media platforms is clear. Yet their strong-arm tactics might be short-sighted too. They acknowledge that having high quality journalistic content available is valuable to them and their users. If they continue to exploit these sources without paying to support their efforts though, they might contribute to the failure of traditional publishers, with ultimately detrimental effects for their own appeal.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should social media platforms pay for the access to journalistic content that they provide to users?
  2. If so, how should these payments be calculated—based on views, copyright laws, clicks, or some other metric, for example?

Source: Mike Cherney, “Google, Facebook to be Ordered to Pay for Australian News Content,” The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2020