HomeBudget & Tax NewsJournalism Bill's 'Link Tax' Could Prompt Facebook to Ban News

Journalism Bill’s ‘Link Tax’ Could Prompt Facebook to Ban News

Journalism bill’s ‘link tax’ could prompt Facebook to ban news, as Democrats consider adding it to a must-pass defense bill.

The worst ideas in Congress never die; they just get sneaked into unrelated bills.

This week, that means lawmakers are reportedly trying to burrow a bad media protectionism bill into defense spending authorization. It’s called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), and it’s a doozy of bad incentives and state favoritism.

In short, the JCPA would suspend antitrust rules for “publishers of online content” so they could “collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms regarding the terms on which content may be distributed.” The latest version states that “digital journalism provider(s)” can engage in joint negotiations with large tech platforms “regarding the pricing, terms, and conditions by which the covered platform may access the content of the eligible digital journalism providers that are members of the joint negotiation entity.” It also sets up rules for these negotiations and mechanisms for enforcing their terms.

The idea animating all this is allowing media companies to negotiate a link tax.

As it stands, search engines like Google and social media companies like Facebook that link to news articles tend to provide short snippets of these articles under their headlines. This is a benefit to consumers, who can get a better sense of what the article is about, and to media companies. Links to news articles on Google, Facebook, etc. help alert people to articles they would potentially like to read, and the small summaries entice people to click. But in the fantasyland where Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar (who sponsored the bill) and other JCPA supporters live, search and social companies will pay for the privilege of sending traffic to media entities.

The plan utterly ignores the fact that search and social help online publishers find readers. Instead, it indulges a cartoonish rendering of tech companies as destroyers of journalism and possibly democracy.

Of course, it’s true that search and social platforms have eaten into the ad budgets of online publishers. But the JCPA acts as if media companies are owed this revenue stream. Far from preserving competition, as the bill’s name implies, it actually thwarts it by allowing lawmakers to pick winners (online publishers) and losers (tech platforms).

“It’s cronyism,” commented Jennifer Huddleston, a lawyer for tech-industry group NetChoice. “It provides a special government granted privilege that allows certain media outlets to collude and as a result risks making them more easily influenced by politicians who can take that privilege away.”

“The JCPA fundamentally breaks the concept of the open internet where you can link anywhere you want for free” and “messes with copyright law in dangerous ways by implying a new right to demand a license for links or fair use snippets,” warned Techdirt’s Mike Masnick.

So, the JCPA is wrong on purely ethical grounds and also poses a danger to fair use, to the open internet, and to the free press. It’s also likely to backfire against online publishers—and not just those who participate in negotiations.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, says that if the JCPA passes it will stop allowing links to news websites altogether—a move that could mean less web traffic for all sorts of media and, as a result, less ad revenue.

“If Congress passes an ill-considered journalism bill as part of national security legislation, we will be forced to consider removing news from our platform altogether rather than submit to government-mandated negotiations that unfairly disregard any value we provide to news outlets through increased traffic and subscriptions,” said Meta in a statement.
“The Journalism and Competition Preservation Act fails to recognize the key fact: publishers and broadcasters put their content on our platform themselves because it benefits their bottom line—not the other way around.”

Meta’s statement went to accuse the JCPA of “creating a cartel-like entity which requires one private company to subsidize other private entities,” saying that this creates “a terrible precedent for all American businesses.’

If Google and other search engines have to pay to link to certain media websites, it would only be natural for them to start downranking or even entirely excluding those websites. There is no shortage of avenues where similar information can be found—news aggregators, perhaps, or social platforms where people are summarizing news stories.

Media outlets may find that instead of tech platforms paying them to link to their stories, Facebook blocks their stories entirely and Google starts linking to Twitter threads instead.

The JCPA has attracted a diverse range of detractorsWhile the JCPA advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 15-7 vote last month, moderates and progressives remain split on the bill,” noted Politico in October:

“That’s in part due to support from Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz(R-Texas), who successfully introduced an amendment that some fear will enable the spread of disinformation and hate speech. Others have raised concerns that the bill could undermine copyright law and benefit large media outlets at the expense of small ones — leading to a strange coalition of tech lobbyists, libertarian groups and progressive advocates lining up to oppose the legislation.”

Whether the JCPA could pass as a stand-alone measure is unclear. So supporters are reportedly trying to stack the deck by slipping a version of the JCPA into an unrelated bill, the “National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA).

“Supporters of the media bailout bill have secured the backing of Sen. Jack Reed (D–R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee which oversees defense spending,” according to Breitbart:

“This brazen last-minute ploy by supporters of the media cartel bill follows what Politico predicted earlier this week: having failed to secure a floor vote to the bill, the JCPA’s supporters now want to attach it to an entirely unrelated bill.”Should the NDAA route fail, the bill’s supporters may also try to attach it to an omnibus spending bill, another type of bill that is seen as a ‘must-pass.'”

A group of 26 organizations—including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Niskanen Center, the R Street Institute, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation—issued a letter yesterday urging lawmakers to not attach the JCPA to any pending legislation.

“The JCPA will compound some of the biggest issues in our information landscape and do little to enable the most promising new models to improve it,” the groups wrote before laying out specific issues they see with the bill. Among these are that the JCPA sets “a legal and political precedent that some uses of content that were once free of charge now require payment” and that “large media conglomerates can dominate negotiations, and small outlets would be unheard if not hurt.”

Originally published by Reason Foundation. Republished with permission.

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Elizabeth Nolan Brown
Elizabeth Nolan Brown
Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a senior editor at Reason.

1 COMMENT

  1. “the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) has been stripped from the text of the NDAA after congressional leaders had agreed to include it just days ago,” says Brietbart. But it could come back!

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