Commentary

Decency Law Reforms Inadequate To Get Publishers To Pay For Content

The contentious issue of whether or how much digital media companies like Facebook and Google should pay news publishers for content this week was tucked into in a report on possible changes to America's internet decency law. It's a novel argument, but doesn't get to heart of the issue of what value is being exchanged between publishers and digital platforms.

A report titled “Regulating Social Media: The Fight Over Section 230 — and Beyond" by Paul Barrett, a former Businessweek journalist who is deputy director of NYU Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights, looks at possible changes to Section 230of the Communications Decency Act.

The Clinton-era law has provided a legal bedrock for the internet by shielding internet service providers and equipment makers from liability for harmful content sent through their digital pipes. Those protections helped to spur trillions of dollars in investment in network infrastructure and technology.

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However, critics have questioned whether Section 230 offers too much protection to companies like Facebook and Google, which control how content is distributed online. The companies aren't just passive conduits for content; they have immense power to stifle free speech. That makes them targets for criticism from across the political spectrum.

Amid the possible reforms to the law, Barrett floats the idea that "platforms also could be obliged to devote a small percentage of their annual revenue to a fund supporting the struggling field of accountability journalism. This last notion would constitute a partial pay-back for the fortune in advertising dollars the social media industry has diverted from traditional news media."

I'm sure publishers would love some pay-back from digital media platforms like Google and Facebook, which have made various arrangements to pay news outlets for content or to support journalism with grants and technology. However, they're not obligated to finance journalism.

A more convincing argument: They should pay for any value that journalism brings to their platforms, which has to be balanced with the value that publishers receive from appearing in search results or in news feeds.

That issue is being debated in countries such as Australia, which may require Facebook and Google to pay publishers for content. The issue is worth debating in the U.S., but not necessarily in relation to reforms of Section 230, which deserve greater scrutiny.

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