On the news media bargaining code, the free internet, and all that jazz

Greetings. I am communicating to you telepathically from the distant future. I come from a doomed world where irradiated mutants stalk a sun-blasted desert hellscape, where mankind has been reduced to little more than scattered, warring death cults, where the sum total of human knowledge exists only in forgotten grimoires and etched onto ancient, rusted microchips. Where it is no longer possible to share links to the Mosman Daily on Facebook. All hope is lost, and we are all waiting huddled by firelight; waiting to die. I implore you, traveller, to convince the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to take a less aggressive view on the antitrust implications of its Digital Platforms Inquiry — lest your pure, untouched world face the same grim fate!

Well, the bastards did it. They blew it up! After a prolonged game of chicken with the government over the proposed news media bargaining code, Facebook did on Thursday what they threatened to do last year and banned Australians from sharing or accessing news via the platform.

Much digital ink has been expended over the past few days — and months, if you were reading the Australian media specifically — about the pros and cons of the code, which jury-rigs a mechanism for local news publishers to eke some coin from Google and Facebook to compensate for the tech titans’ uncompetitive dominance of the ad market. I’m not particularly interested in litigating any one side of the Alien vs. Predator conflict of big media and big tech, but I do think these arguments have exposed how contrived and detached from reality the discourse about the internet has gotten.

Before I get into that, a very brief summary of the views on display here:

  • Australian media companies, largely Nine Entertainment Co and News Corporation, make the same arguments as every other publisher on the planet, with the government and the ACCC on their side. Facebook and Google hoover up the ad market, depriving publishers of revenue, and enforce often arbitrary content standards through opaque search and news feed algorithms. But, the argument goes, Facebook and Google can’t actually exist without the content made by publishers, and thus those publishers should be compensated.

  • Google and Facebook say this misunderstands how the internet works. They just point users to content, driving traffic to publishers. If news publishers are so angry about the arrangement, they can voluntarily delist themselves from Google and stop using Facebook — nobody is forcing them to use these services. And why should news publishers be an arbitrarily protected class, and not any of the other people and businesses with links to their content on Facebook and Google?

Google, despite launching a major (and often somewhat jumbled) PR effort against the code, has more or less acceded to it in spirit, signing up a number of publishers to Google News Showcase, an ostensibly Apple News-like consumer product which is really a make-nice arrangement to soothe angry media companies around the world, toss them a few pieces of silver — nowhere near thirty, mind you — and get them more seamlessly integrated into the Google ecosystem. It is by no means a loss for Google, which captures more attention and neutralises some opposition for what amounts to a paltry fee. Facebook, which doesn’t really need news content on quite the same level as Google does, slammed the big red button.

Generally speaking, many people who are inclined to think about these things fall in line with big tech — often with caveats. Over at Platformer, Casey Newton calls the media bargaining code a “rotten shakedown” and praises Facebook for “calling Australia’s bluff” while bemoaning Google’s failure to do so. Mike Masnick at Techdirt, while acknowledging that Facebook is “a terrible, terrible company”, attacked the code as “fundamentally against the principles of an open internet”.

This particular allegation — that Australia’s legislation strikes at the internet’s very heart — has been repeated by some of the so-called ‘founders’ of the internet. Tim Berners-Lee told a Senate committee that code risked “breaching a fundamental principle of the web”, while TCP/IP protocol co-designer (and current Google ‘chief internet evangelist’) Vint Cerf said it was “an intervention that would distort access to information and disadvantage Australians who rely on Google to share their voice and run their business.”

On the merits, and if we were speaking in a vacuum about the internet of twenty years ago, I’d be inclined to agree. The code’s clumsy mechanism, which focuses somewhat strangely on the ‘display’ of links, does seem at odds with both internet as a project and also how the average person uses it and expects it to function. No argument there.

But we’re not talking about the internet of twenty years ago, and we’re not in a vacuum. The thing that irks me about this debate is that, even if you take a very narrow view of what ‘breaking’ or ‘destroying’ the fundamental principles of the internet looks like, big tech has already done this on a cataclysmic and perhaps irreversible scale, far more than any link tax by a country of 25 million at the arse end of the Pacific could ever hope to.

I’ve already quoted Tim Berners-Lee in opposition to the code, so here he is again, back in 1989, pitching the World Wide Web in Information Management: A Proposal:

We should work toward a universal linked information system, in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities. The aim would be to allow a place to be found for any information or reference which one felt was important, and a way of finding it afterwards. The result should be sufficiently attractive to use that it the information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use. The passing of this threshold accelerated by allowing large existing databases to be linked together and with new ones.

In 2021, here’s what we have instead of this clear vision. Much of the world uses one of only a handful of endlessly refreshing feeds as their gateway to the internet, which operate as basically enormous, lightly-moderated forums. Users are presented with a maze of links, full of content which is engineered and presented to best capture users of these infinite feeds. They click them, they consume, they return to the feed. The whole time, ad trackers pursue them, collating data and turning the user into a saleable object. Search engines, while still claiming to connect users to the best piece of content to satisfy a query, are clogged up algorithmic chum, recommendations, ads and webpages brutally optimised into a sea of grey sameness.

When was the last time you clicked to page three of a Google result? Is it because the absolute correct answer is provided to you immediately, without fail? Or is it because you can be reasonably assured that every other page will be full of more or less identical results, populated with websites that exist with Google as their intended audience, and not any actual human being?

When the company executed Google Reader back in 2013, it saw the writing on the wall. The future of content was not people finding sites they liked and subscribing to those sites for regular updates. Rather, the future was in a fully end-to-end, mediated experience, serving people things they didn’t even know they liked, wrapped up in ads for things they were algorithmically guaranteed to want.

This mindset has expanded dramatically in the intervening period. We know that the way news is written and displayed has been deformed, perhaps permanently, by Facebook and its generous distribution of referral traffic in the early-to-mid 2010s. Even if you are not on Facebook, you really are — because much of the web’s content is written for Facebook, to say nothing of its ad trackers pursuing you around the web anyway. To put it simply: you can elect not to use Facebook or its products, but you can’t elect not to live on a planet where almost everyone else does.

To put it in even simpler and more universal terms: the internet was fucked to pieces long before Australia started poking at it on behalf of its media companies. This does not absolve big media and publishers of their own myriad failures in tackling the new moment over the past couple of decades — but it’s also hard to imagine it having played out any other way.

We’re now at the precipice of a new, unavoidable era in global internet and tech regulation. In many ways, the internet’s status as a grand liberal project and contemporary squabbles over free speech and deplatforming occlude what many of these arguments are really about: an oligopoly of US firms, with imperial reach, butting up against other sovereign states which have newly rediscovered an interest in protectionism. Nowhere was this tension clearer than when Donald Trump’s term — full of rage and bluster at liberal big tech — ended with US trade representatives begging Australia to abandon the media bargaining code. At the end of the day, money talks.

Some of these regulations, targeting companies with supernatural talent for international tax evasion, are going to look like shakedowns and smash-and-grab operations, peeling off revenue wherever they can. They will look like rent-seeking operations by existing industry. But it is coming, and big tech’s ungainly manoeuvring of the world’s current populist moment means that they will have few allies when it does.

None of this, again, is to say that I think the media bargaining code is necessarily good legislation — or even that it is designed with good intentions. But it’s clear that the aggressive posturing from big tech has nothing to do with the letter of the law. It’s a warning shot for the rest of the world. I have no doubt there are people at Google and (to a far lesser extent) Facebook who genuinely prize the ideals of the ‘free internet’, but it is not for those people the companies are trying to neutralise the oncoming threat.

It’s all about the $$$, and we shouldn’t forget that the companies allegedly trying to protect the global internet from being compromised are the ones who have left it in such a sorry, narrowly imagined state in the first place.

Today’s links

  • If you’re looking for a more Catholic view on all of this — and you are — try this on for size:

    Mark Zuckerberg was the obvious figure to become the first Pope of Online; it could have never been Jack from Twitter, whose collapse into Zen nonsense was almost certainly prompted by the dark realisation that someone had to make order out of the chaos of the social web. No, Zuckerberg had the primacy from the moment he launched Facebook. 

  • I like reading Freddie de Boer when he’s on a tear, and if you feel like I might have gone too easy on the institutional media and those who populate it in the above piece in my haste to criticise big tech, then you might find a salve here. A fairly acidic salve, but there you go. I think this broader discussion about authority is very interesting as regards the conversation about platforms and power.

  • A decent summary of the growing labour activism at Amazon in the US.

  • I was only tangentially paying attention to all of the Hillsong scandal so this Vanity Fair writeup was very helpful. And the drama!

  • One division the pandemic has illuminated for obvious reasons is the split between means-testers and universalists in social spending. I thought this was good.

  • I’ve started listening to Ghost Stories for the End of the World, which bills itself as “an occult history of post-war politics, true crime, deep state intrigue, and how we got here”. I’ve been looking for a conspiracy-type pod which isn’t too out there and not too reactionary, and this rally fits the bill. Well researched, only prone to periodic flights of fancy, and narrated with a very pleasing Yorkshire accent.

  • I am big-time interested in how the world is going to remember Covid — I tend to fall into the camp who thinks it’ll be largely excised from pop culture and remembered distantly, like the Spanish flu — but this about the pandemic and traumatic memory was interesting.

I’m going to try and update this newsletter more frequently now, largely because I’m sick of being deeply wounded by tweets lampooning people for starting a Substack and giving up after five or so posts, so I’ve re-engineered it to be less of a chore. It’ll just be a short blog and some links from here on out — if you really want to know what books I’ve been reading and movies I’ve been watching you can email me or hit me up on Twitter. Always happy to chat! If you landed on this post thanks to someone sharing it, you can subscribe by smashing the button below: