Hi all. This week I resisted the temptation and wrote about Australia without a single mention of kangaroos, barbie shrimp or Naomi Watts. (Although she once appeared in a TV movie version one of my books.) G’day!
The simple view
When they created their respective companies, the founders of Google and Facebook had no idea that they would end up being accused of destroying the information industry. Google’s page and Brin wanted to capture the entire web, on the reasonable assumption that anyone who created a site on this open channel would welcome traffic. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t even considered that people in his network would exchange news links, but he came up with the idea of the News Feed as a personalized diary, equating the news with “stories” about the news. parties, weddings and who are related from whom. Like Google, Facebook assumed that sites its users linked to would host traffic.
You only have to look at Australia this week to see that things haven’t worked out that way. The news industry in general is hurting, and some publishers, notably the powerful Rupert Murdoch, say that platforms profiting from their news content are one of the main reasons. This argument has won favor with the country’s government, which is considering a law demanding that platforms like Google and Facebook negotiate compensation for the damage his behavior has caused to news posts.
Although the two companies deny their guilt, Google decided this week to throw a few million of its vast profits to Murdoch and other publishers. (The agreement is part of a existing global program, but timing inextricably ties this arrangement to looming law in Murdoch’s homeland.) The ever-stubborn Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has sunk on his heels, a move he makes so often that one suspects a team shoemakers is on call. Not even waiting for the law to pass, he ordered his team to change the news feed to No News Feed, removing all links to news articles in Australian news feeds and also blocking links to Australian news sites around the world. Facebook didn’t win any friends by performing the deletion so clumsily that it accidentally deleted government and public service sites offering vital information.
The odd thing about these machinations is that this war – which may well spread to other countries that are not happy with platforms – is taking place on the wrong battlefield. Although the law does not seem very specific on the matter, Australian lawmakers seem to have accepted the long voice Murdochian claim that Google and Facebook steal news content by linking to articles, sometimes even providing snippets. But this claim is false: links are good for news organizations because they send readers to their pages. If a news site wants to unsubscribe, it can simply block links. Where is the harm?