Senate Panel Considers Bill Allowing News Organizations To Band Together

Senator Amy Klobuchar on Wednesday blasted large tech companies for “taking” news organizations' content without paying them.

“Big tech companies are not friends to journalism,” the Minnesota Democrat said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

“They are raking in ad dollars while taking news content, feeding it to their users and refusing to offer fair compensation,” she said. “And they're making money on consumers' backs by using the content produced by news outlets to suck up as much data about each reader as they can. So it's kind of a double whammy.”

Klobuchar's remarks came at a hearing on her proposed Journalism Competition and Protection Act, which would grant a four-year antitrust exemption to news organizations (including print, television and online companies) in order to allow them to negotiate collectively with online platforms that draw at least 1 billion monthly active users.

The bill is supported by the News Media Alliance (which represents many of the country's largest newspapers) and National Association of Broadcasters. Both organizations have argued that large tech companies unfairly profit from journalists' work.

“The dominant online platforms have flourished, siphoning off huge amounts of advertising revenues that are the lifeblood of free, local journalism,” Joel Oxley, a radio executive who testified on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters, said in prepared remarks.

Oxley added that Facebook, Google and other large platforms “simply take our coverage and profit from it, and virtually nothing comes back to us.”

But Harvard Law School lecturer Daniel Francis, who opposes the bill, told lawmakers Wednesday that news organizations' dispute with tech companies centers on a disagreement about “property rights on the internet” -- a reference to fair use principles relied on by web companies that display snippets of copyrighted material.

“Our property laws, very wisely, don't give a website owner the power to veto or tax linking or fair-use previewing of that website,” Francis said.

Consumer advocacy groups including Public Knowledge and Fight for the Future also weighed in against the bill, which they say could “alter the free and open nature of the internet.”

“The law as drafted represents, at best, a fundamental mischaracterization (or, at worst, a planned alteration) of U.S. copyright law,” they said in a letter sent to lawmakers on Wednesday. “News outlets, even when banded together, lack any legal right to prohibit third parties from linking to their content. Linking is properly outside the ambit of copyright law, while brief excerpts or previews of news stories are long-established fair uses and do not require permission from the copyright holder.”

Klobuchar suggested in her remarks that tech companies revenue gains in recent years came at the expense of news organizations.

She noted that ad revenue for U.S. newspapers fell to less than $9 billion in 2020 from more than $37 billion in 2008, while revenue for Google and Facebook surged during those years.

“As one of my colleagues said during the presidential race, do the math,” Klobuchar said.

But Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), who opposes the bill, cast at least some blame on news organizations themselves for the revenue declines.

“The bottom line here is that whatever the challenges that the news publishers are facing as a result of Big Tech's dominance over digital advertising, for some publishers, perhaps for many, they've got other problems,” he said.

He added that those problems may involve “inferior product quality,” as well as “ failure to take into account evolving technologies.”

Lee also expressed concerns that the proposed law would create a cartel, without necessarily helping local news organizations.

Klobuchar said at the hearing that the bill was still a work-in-progress, and might be revised to address concerns about its potential impact on small organizations.

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