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Public Knowledge Fears Impact to Internet As Facebook Blocks Users from Sharing Australian News

February 18, 2021 , , , , , , , , ,
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This week, Facebook announced that the company “will restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content” in response to Australia’s “Media Bargaining law,” which would require Big Tech to pay publishers for linking to news content. In contrast, Google, which would also be impacted by the Australian bill if it passes, announced a three-year deal with News Corp to pay for the publisher’s content — following several reported deals with Australian media companies to blunt the law’s impact.

There is no doubt that civic journalism faces a global crisis, but Public Knowledge contends that imposing public interest obligations, like an Internet Superfund, on dominant platforms is a better way to support local journalism for our communities as opposed to blocking users sharing news online or encouraging Big Tech and Big Media to strike deals that benefit themselves — both are predictable outcomes of this flawed legislation.

The following can be attributed to Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge:

“As we’ve seen in the last few days, the ‘Australian Experiment’ to force Google and Facebook to support the Australian news industry leaves the needs of internet users out of the equation. Users cannot share news, or access important news sources. As we watch the continued developments in Australia, we worry that instead of the intended result of empowering users and promoting local journalism, the system will enrich tech and media moguls at the expense of civic discourse. Worse, it could make the internet more and more like cable TV, where media giants force users to sit through content blackouts to extort huge payments from cable companies. It’s hard to see how this Australian law won’t eventually lead to forcing any website or service to pay for linking. Internet pioneers, media academics, and advocacy groups like Public Knowledge warned that this approach would be a disaster — despite insistence by the Australian government that everything would turn out fine. 

“Almost 30 years ago, the United States made the same mistake in forcing cable to support broadcasters. To prop up failing local stations, the 1992 Cable Act required cable operators to pay ‘retransmission fees’ to broadcasters for carrying free over-the-air broadcasts. It completely failed. Instead, local independent television stations have virtually disappeared, and customers have to suffer through lengthy programming blackouts while both Big Cable and giant media companies underwent massive consolidation to create leverage to negotiate for something the broadcasters already give away freely. Media conglomerates are already large and with little antitrust enforcement, Big Tech is already too powerful, as well. American policymakers should work for a different path centered on public interest needs.

“As we watch this ‘Australian Experiment,’ we will monitor how harms impact internet users. The United States should be wary of trying to save journalism by giving the biggest publishers a slice of the monopoly pie. We need sustainable solutions grounded in the public interest that will genuinely nourish independent local journalism rather than pay off powerful media moguls.”

View our recent blog post, “America Needs a Public Interest Approach To Solving Big Tech Harms To News,” for more information on why Big Tech paying for linking to news content could “undermine the interactivity that makes the internet such an important medium of speech and civic engagement.”