Debate heats up over bill targeting Google, Facebook’s power over local news

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
In this Sept. 24, 2019, file photo a woman walks below a Google sign on the campus in Mountain View, Calif.

The debate around a proposal that aims to give news outlets the power to negotiate with tech giants to distribute their content is heating up ahead of a Senate markup of the bill slated for Thursday. 

Bipartisan sponsors of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in the House and Senate released a revised version of the bill in August, which kicked off campaigns from advocacy groups for and against the legislation.

Chamber of Progress, Public Knowledge and 19 other advocacy groups sent a letter on Friday to top senators of the Judiciary Committee against the bill, arguing the revised version would force tech platforms to carry digital content “regardless of how extreme” it is. 

But the News Media Alliance, a trade association that represents newspapers across the U.S., dismissed the arguments made against the legislation and said it would help even the playing field after years of tech platforms decimating local news.

“This is expected opposition based on the organizations asserting these claims,” Danielle Coffey, executive vice president and general counsel for the News Media Alliance, told The Hill. 

“The attacks themselves, frankly, are just not substantiated by the text of the document, nor do they solve the problem that the legislation is trying to solve, which is to ensure fair compensation for high quality journalism,” she added. 

The bill would allow digital journalism providers with fewer than 1,500 full time employees and nonnetwork news broadcasters to form joint negotiation entities to collectively negotiate with dominant tech platforms, such as Google and Facebook, over the terms associated with access to their digital news content. 

It would also create a limited safe harbor from federal and state antitrust laws for eligible digital journalism providers that would allow them to participate in joint negotiation and arbitration to jointly withhold their content from a covered platform.

The bill’s supporters say it is intended to help build back local news infrastructure after revenues have been cut into by tech giants sharing digital news content. 

“To preserve strong, independent journalism, we have to make sure news organizations are able to negotiate on a level playing field with the online platforms that have come to dominate news distribution and digital advertising,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, said in a statement when releasing the revised bill. 

The bill is also sponsored by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) is a lead sponsor, along with antitrust subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and ranking member Ken Buck (R-Colo.).  

Adam Kovacevich, CEO and founder of the tech industry group Chamber of Progress, said his primary concern is that the bill would “effectively force online platforms to both fund and link to” right wing outlets, such as Infowars, Newsmax and One America News Network. 

“Our concern is that the JCPA would turn Big Tech platforms into kind of a guaranteed ATM and billboard for right wing news delivering funding and guaranteed links and traffic from their services,” Kovacevich told reporters on a call Wednesday. 

Google and Facebook’s parent company Meta are both corporate partners that support the Chamber of Progress. 

The core of the argument from advocacy groups opposing the bill is centered around a provision in the revised text of the bill that says a covered platform, referring to the dominant tech companies, may not “discriminate against any eligible digital journalism provider that is a member of a joint negotiation entity.” 

The letter sent by Chamber of Progress, Public Knowledge and other groups also argues that large media conglomerates will still be able to “dominate negotiations” and that “small outlets would be unheard,” because the proposal would apply to all outlets that employ fewer than 1,500 full time employees, a cap which only excludes the nation’s three largest newspapers. The limit could also “create unintended consequences such as layoffs or transitions to more part-time or freelance employees,” the groups said. 

“I think those members of Congress who are supporting this see their local news outlets, they see the struggles that they’re going through, and they want to do something good. And I think they need to take more time to look at the details of this bill, and the unintended consequences,” Chris Lewis, president and CEO of Public Knowledge, told reporters on the same Wednesday call. 

The News Media Alliance, however, dismissed the argument about potential layoffs and said that the “opposite” will happen. In Australia, where a similar proposal was passed last year, the News Media Alliance said some newsrooms doubled in size after the change. 

“The information that we provide to communities is critical — whether it be health care, education, or what’s going on that nobody else will cover. There will be no other entity that comes in and covers a community, and attends a city hall meeting, or listens to a school board. It’s not going to happen,” Coffey said. 

“I’ve seen these newspapers go away and nothing replaces them, and the reason isn’t an audience problem. It’s a revenue problem,” she said. 

The change in the news industry, she said, is “directly caused by the revenue that’s extracted by the platforms that do not come back to those who create the content.” 

“It’s not coincidental,” she said.

Tags Adam Kovacevich Amy Klobuchar Amy Klobuchar antitrust legislation Big tech David Cicilline Dick Durbin Google Jerrold Nadler John Kennedy Journalism Competition and Preservation Act Ken Buck Meta

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