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Article from Issue 245/2021
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Once upon a time, everybody linked to everybody on the web, and that was OK, because every business that depended on the web for revenue could go and sell advertising.

Dear Reader,

Once upon a time, everybody linked to everybody on the web, and that was OK, because every business that depended on the web for revenue could go and sell advertising. Then all the traffic started funneling through a few powerful web companies, and those companies gradually locked in huge portions of global ad revenue, causing instability for many of the organizations that write, research, and vet much of the content that actually makes the Internet interesting. In Australia, for instance, News Corp announced last year that more than 100 local and regional newspapers would cease to print because of the loss of ad revenue. According to many, this downward pressure on news revenue has also led to a downward pressure on news quality, with premium providers taking refuge behind paywalls and free news sites having less budget to explore important leads and develop original stories.

The Australian government recently struck back, proposing a law that would force companies like Google and Facebook to negotiate with media companies to compensate them for linking to their content. If the two sides are not able to reach an agreement, an arbitrator will decide on the terms.

Full disclosure: The company that publishes this magazine, Linux New Media USA, is a web content provider that could possibly receive compensation under this sort of law, but then, we also link to other sites, so we'd also have to provide compensation. In the long run, I'm not sure if this would help or hurt our revenue, but anyway, I'm the resident philosopher, not the numbers guy.

Google and Facebook reacted swiftly, denouncing the proposal and declaring that such a law might force them to consider leaving Australia. Then, in the season's most interesting chess move, Microsoft stepped in, eagerly volunteering that their Bing search platform would be ready to accommodate the Australian plan. Google soon came back to the table, with Google CEO Sundar Pichai sitting in on what Australian prime minister Scott Morrison called a "constructive" talk about the proposed law.

We'll see how all this plays out. One of the dangers of this column is that I write it a couple months before you read it, and everything could look a little different by the the time you see this page, but it is safe to say that this is one of those controversies that captivates because it drills down into the very question of what the Internet is. Paying to link to content is certainly incongruous with how we think about the Internet, which is one reason why web creator Tim Berners-Lee has come out against the Australian plan. But then, where did our "vision" of the Internet come from? Did we vote on it? And is preserving this vision more important than preserving our system of independent news media?

Both sides have valid arguments that are too numerous and intricate to enumerate in this space, but maybe the real thing to take away is, the Australian government, like other governments around the world, is finally getting around to saying "This is broken. Fix it." And all sides have an interest in coming up with a solution that works for everybody.

The Australian proposal is significant because it takes the form of actual legislation, but similar winds are blowing on other shores, and Google and Facebook have been attempting to navigate some of these questions before they reach the point of government intervention. In October, for instance, Google announced the Google News Showcase, a new product that will provide a structure for revenue sharing with publishers. In November, Facebook rolled out a program that will pay millions of pounds to UK publishers. Neither of these initiatives is as far reaching as the Australian proposal, but they both represent a drift toward progress.

Maybe we can fix this thing after all.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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