Facebook and the news after Australia: What happens now?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The Australian version of Facebook got decidedly less newsy a week ago, after the social-media giant suddenly blocked Australian news outlets from posting their stories to its platform, and also blocked regular users in that country from sharing news from any media outlet anywhere in the world (traffic to Australian news sites fell by as much as 20 percent, according to Axios). This move came in response to a law that requires large platforms like Facebook and Google to pay for every news article carried on their networks, something that both companies said fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between their platforms and news publishers (the law was passed by the Australian parliament on Wednesday). To critics of the company, including some members of the government, the move was just another sign of how Facebook has too much power, and needs to be regulated. To defenders of the open internet, including World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners Lee, it was just the opposite: a sign of how governments are over-reaching when it comes to legislation aimed at curbing platform power and/or funding journalism.

This week, the Australian front in this war over payment for news cooled down dramatically, when Facebook said Monday that it was removing the block on sharing in that country, as a result of amendments to the law. But the war itself shows little sign of stopping. If anything, Australia’s pressure on Google and Facebook, and the resulting settlement with the latter — as vague as it may be in practice — only seems to have increased the interest other countries have in trying to repeat Australia’s success (Microsoft is also trying to help push this kind of legislation, likely for competitive reasons). At the end of the day, citizens lost the ability to post news for a few days, but media companies are likely to get a windfall as a result (broadcasters like Seven and Nine have already gotten $30 million each from Google). Facebook has committed to investing more than $1 billion in the media industry worldwide over the next three years. Canada has said it is interested in pursuing legislation similar to that proposed by Australia, and legislators in the European Union seem similarly enamored of the code and its ability to squeeze the platforms.

As CJR explained recently, the Australian law is a tougher version of legislation introduced in France and Germany several years ago, after the passage by the EU of new copyright rules on what are called “neighboring rights,” which apply to aggregators like Google News. The French and German variations of those laws have had mixed results, in part because they are difficult to enforce. In France earlier this week, antitrust regulators released a report that accused Google of failing to comply with the rules requiring it to hold talks with publishers over payment for their content. The search giant signed a three-year deal worth $76 million with a number of French publishers earlier this year, but some smaller news outlets were not included in the deal. According to regulators, Google failed to hold talks with those other publishers “in good faith” to find an agreement on payment. This helps explain why Australia’s version of the same legislation imposes mandatory binding arbitration if a platform fails to hold negotiations with a publisher after a certain period of time.

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Google cuts deals with publishers while Facebook blocks all news in Australia

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Australia has become Ground Zero in the battle over payment for news in recent weeks, thanks to a proposed law that would force platforms like Google and Facebook to pay publishers for the right to use even small portions of their articles. That battle escalated in two different directions at once on Wednesday: on one side, News Corp. announced a multi-year deal with Google that will see the search company pay for content from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Times in the UK and other Murdoch properties. Just hours later, Facebook announced that it has taken the exact opposite approach: because of the proposed law, the company says it will block publishers in Australia from posting any of their articles to Facebook, and will also block Facebook users in that country from sharing any news on its platform — that is, not just news from Australian publishers, but any news from any outlet worldwide. William Easton, director of operations in Australia for Facebook, wrote that the proposed news-payment code “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content.”

The proposed Australian code, which is scheduled to go before that country’s Senate later this month for approval, would force Google and Facebook to negotiate with news publishers — either individually or as a group — in order to arrive at fair compensation for the use of even small snippets of their news content. If they can’t reach an agreement, then the Australian code would force the digital platforms to enter into binding arbitration with a government-appointed mediator. In addition to payment, the code also requires the platforms to do other things, including sharing any changes to their news-recommendation algorithms that might affect how a publisher’s content is found. The original version of the code would have forced Google and Facebook to pay a specific amount for every click on a news article, but a revised version released this week says that the platforms can negotiate payment based on lump sums for any and all content.

The Australian code is a tougher version of similar copyright-based laws that have been enacted over the past few years in a number of European countries, including France and Germany, which require Google and other digital platforms to pay for using even small sections of news articles. Those laws were sparked by changes to European Union copyright laws to enable what are called “neighboring rights,” and the EU is said to be watching Australia’s proposed law with a view towards possibly toughening its own legislation in similar ways. While Google has threatened in the past to withdraw its search and news services from the EU, as well as from France and Germany, the company has not followed through on these threats (with one exception: it removed Spain from its Google News index in 2014 after similar laws were passed in that country). Instead, it has been signing deals with publishers in France and elsewhere, paying them for inclusion in its Google News Showcase, which was launched last year.

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Would ending anonymity make social media better? In a word, no

Note: This post was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Whenever the subject of disinformation, hate speech, or harassment on social-media platforms comes up, someone inevitably suggests all of these problems could be solved if Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram outlawed anonymity and forced users to sign up using their real names. The past week has seen a revival of this argument from a number of corners: In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Andy Kessler said that trying to solve these problems by tweaking Section 230 — the clause in the Communications Decency Act that gives digital platforms protection from liability for content they host — would be too difficult, and so ending anonymity is the only solution. The “know your customer” rule for Wall Street is designed to stop money laundering, Kessler suggested, so “maybe it can work for rhetoric laundering.” At the very least, he said, it would make it easier for people to sue random Twitter users for defamation, etc.

How would verifying the identity of social-media users be accomplished exactly? Kessler doesn’t really know. “Require a credit card, like Apple does to use its app store? Maybe,” he writes. “A driver’s license? Passport? A trip to the post office or DMV?” The idea that someone would have to upload their passport or driver’s license in order to tweet seems so absurd as to be laughable, but Kessler has some company in his dislike of anonymity on social networks: Citing the article in a tweet, Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security committee, said he was “concerned that Congress’s involvement in Section 230 reform may lead to more harm than good,” and that one solution worth considering was “to end user anonymity on social media platforms. Social media companies need to know who their customers are so bad actors can be held accountable.”

Johnson was soon joined by Senator John Kennedy, who says he is working on legislation he plans to introduce that would require social-media users to verify their identities. Doing this would “cause a lot of people to think about their words” before posting, Kennedy said. According to one news report, the senator is “confident the proposal would be constitutional” and added that “many newspapers require users to identify themselves in comment sections.” Whether Kennedy or Johnson are successful remains to be seen, but there are a number of reasons to be skeptical about the idea that removing anonymity would even be possible, let alone a positive development for social media. For one thing, Jeff Kosseff, a law professor at the US Naval Academy, said the courts have repeatedly upheld a First Amendment right to anonymity, citing the anonymous authors of the Federalist Papers, among others, and this right has also been recognized for internet forums and other digital platforms.

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Twitter stands up to India, refuses to block journalists and media

Note: This was first published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Two weeks ago, protests by farmers in India turned violent, even as the country was celebrating the anniversary of its democratic constitution. As thousands marched and drove their tractors through New Delhi, police responded with tear gas and batons, and a young farmer was killed. As the protests drew international attention, a wave of public support for the farmers spread across social media. Indian authorities responded by harassing and even filing sedition charges against journalists, and the Modi government also ordered Twitter to block the accounts of a number of users it said were fomenting hatred and inciting violence, including media outlets like The Caravan, a magazine known for its investigative journalism. Twitter assented to these orders, but later unblocked some of the accounts belonging to journalists and media. Since then, the Indian government has increased the pressure on Twitter, warning that employees who work in the country could face potential jail sentences if the company doesn’t agree to the blocks.

On Tuesday, Twitter released a statement saying it continues to refuse the Modi government’s orders to ban accounts belonging to journalists, media outlets, and politicians who have been critical of the government’s policies. “Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians,” the company said. “To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.” Twitter added that it continues to advocate for “the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve” and that it is exploring its legal options in India. The company said it is committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation on Twitter, and that it “strongly believes that the Tweets should flow.”

That final phrase, “the tweets should flow,” is more than just a poetic description of Twitter’s belief in its role as a free-speech platform. It’s a very deliberate echo of a much earlier post that expressed a similar message, one that was written almost a decade ago, in the wake of protests in Egypt that would later become known as the Arab Spring rebellion. Co-authored by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and the company’s general counsel, Alex MacGillivray, the post was entitled “The Tweets Must Flow,” and expressed Twitter’s belief that “freedom of expression is essential.” Some tweets “may facilitate positive change in a repressed country,” the post said. “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.” Not long afterwards, Twitter’s general manager in the UK, described the company’s policy by saying it saw itself as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

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