Commentary

Digital CEOs Accused Of Destructive Practices Against Publishers

Facebook, Google and Twitter today will face more scrutiny from federal lawmakers who are expected to question CEOs of digital media giants about their possibly destructive effects on local news publishers. It’s too early to tell whether the hearing will lead to a more comprehensive plan to save local journalism, though a Senate reportreleased yesterday offers a few ideas of how regulators may one day protect embattled publishers.  

The report from a group of Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), claims local journalism is in trouble, partly because Silicon Valley companies have engaged in anticompetitive business practices.

Those alleged behaviors include Google's requirement that publishers distribute news on Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) to show up in mobile search results. Publishers have said the requirement prevents them from gathering data about their readers and limits subscription revenue.

The report also argues that Google's search results increasingly show snippets of news that keep people on its search site instead of clicking through to publisher sites. The News Media Alliance, a trade group that represents news publishers, made the same argument in a report last summer.

Google and Facebook have contested other claims that they "scrape" news content from publisher sites. They point to their recent initiatives to pay publishers for content they show on their respective sites. The companies make valid points, as I've said in the past, though publishers need to be wary of any business model that depends on the whims of Facebook and Google's algorithms.

As for remedies to Silicon Valley's indifference to journalism, the report recommends that the Senate pass pandemic-relief measures like those approved by the House passed this year, expanding the range of local news outlets that qualify for the U.S. Treasury's Paycheck Protection Program.

The report also says Congress should consider insist that tech companies negotiate with local news outlets for use of their content, similar to how Congress required cable companies receive permission from broadcasters, or “retransmission consent,” before distributing their programming as part of the 1992 Cable Act.

The hearing should be interesting, since the Senate committee appears more prepared to address real issues confronting news publishers, and whether tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have abused certain protections under the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Losing those protections would expose them to more legal liability for the content they distribute, a necessary step in jolting the companies out of their wholesale indifference to plight of journalism.

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