The Plain ViewWhen they started their respective companies, the founders of Google and Facebook had no idea that they would eventually find themselves charged with destroying the news industry. Google’s Page and Brin wanted to capture all the web, on the reasonable premise that anyone who set up a site on that open channel would welcome the traffic. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg didn’t even envision that people on his network would be swapping news links, but came around to the idea of the News Feed as a personalized newspaper, equating news with “stories” about parties, weddings, and who friended who. Like Google, Facebook assumed that the sites its users linked to would welcome the traffic.
One need only look to Australia this week to see that things didn’t work out that way. The news business in general is hurting, and some publishers, notably the powerful Rupert Murdoch, say that platforms profiting from their news content is a big reason why. This argument has won the favor of the country’s government, which is considering a law demanding that platforms like Google and Facebook negotiate compensation for the damage its behavior has done to news publications.Though both companies deny culpability, Google this week decided to toss some millions from its vast profits to Murdoch and other publishers. (The deal is couched as part of an existing global program, but the timing inextricably links this arrangement to the impending law in Murdoch’s native country.) The ever-stubborn Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has dug his heels in, a move he makes so often that one suspects a team of cobblers is on call. Not even waiting for the law to pass, he ordered his team to change the News Feed to the No News Feed, wiping all links to news articles in Australian news feeds and also blocking links to Australian news sites worldwide. Facebook didn’t win any friends by executing the removal so ham-handedly that it wound up accidentally taking down government and public-interest sites offering vital information.
The weird thing about these machinations is that this war—which may well spread to other countries not happy with the platforms—is being fought on the wrong battlefield. Though the law doesn’t seem terribly specific about the issue, Australian lawmakers seem to have accepted the long-voiced Murdochian claim that Google and Facebook are stealing news content by linking to articles, sometimes even providing snippets. But that claim is bogus: The links are beneficial to the news organizations, as they send readers to their pages. If a news site wants to opt out, it can simply block the links. Where’s the harm?