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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-02-2021 07:51

News in the age of the Internet

At stake is the health of our information ecosystem, and therefore the robustness of democracy. This is the time for everyone with a vested interest in a strong field of journalistic production to act.

The Internet is one of humanity’s most precious creations, of that there can be no doubt. Therefore it must be protected, in order to continue being a force that advances humanity, despite all its flaws. For, it must be said, the Internet is at its most basic element a human network, maintained by machines but structured and utilised by and for humans. 

Building on that principle, one of its most powerful effects is the capacity to distribute information at a scale and reach unimaginable only half a decade ago, connecting people with each other and with troves of documents, articles, and all sorts of pieces of information that would have been impossible to house in a physical structure. 

Among the most impactful pieces of information that travels through its vast expanse is journalism. What makes news so powerful is its ultimate goal is to inform the population, making it one of the elemental building blocks of human society. If one agrees that personal freedoms are at the centre of the preferred systems of organisation through which we, as a species, would like to express our social projects, then it should be logically deductible that a free, plural, and vibrant press is necessary. 

Which in turn brings us to the current state of the ongoing conflict between the major technology platforms, namely Google and Facebook, and the world’s media industry. Over the past months, the playing field has been in constant flux, with news publishers winning a series of battles, big and small, that have been the consequence of a generalised shift in social attitudes toward the titans of Silicon Valley. 

Not too long ago, these firms were seen as the knights in shining armour, disrupting the world for good. That characterisation wasn’t off the rails: these companies and their founders, people like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have harnessed the powers of entrepreneurial capitalism to build companies that improved our lives exponentially, generating the largest and most efficiently searchable catalogue of information the world has ever seen, along with the tools to instantly — and at zero to no cost — connect billions across the globe. Add a whole host of other services and entertainment systems to the mix and it is undeniable that in the course of two decades the new, digital layer that has been added to our lives has been revolutionary, dramatically altering our lives, welfare and capacities. This new era was not without its side effects – from addiction to misinformation and more – but even so, it must be acknowledged that the improvements were for the better.

Unable to keep up, the news industry has been drowning in a puddle that has, over time, grown to the size of a large lake. Publishers, facing an apocalyptic ocean, have had to change, acknowledging the need for necessary and painful internal transformations, in order to adapt to a new digital environment, and with it a new relationship with readers.

This process was not unlike the challenges that other disrupted industries were forced to face, from the major record labels with the appearance of Napster to brick and mortar retail with the rise of Amazon and ecommerce. But news – with its capacity and duty to form subjectivities by reporting on the goings on pertaining to the forces, and interests, making decisions that affect our societal structure – cannot go through a protracted dark period without having a negative effect. 

In the same way that every disrupted industry was forced to build itself again, seeking and creating a new business model that protects its capacity to generate enough capital to continue reinvesting in the improvement of the product, the media industry must clean up its act internally and face the external obstacles in order to survive.

With the Internet as the main channel of distribution for many platforms, it is becoming increasingly unsustainable for outlets to survive, given the asymmetric power wielded by the major tech platforms, which act as aggregators, as the gatekeepers of the digital world. Google and Facebook have the power to determine what content –and therefore what news – the vast majority of society consumes. This is risky – as well as being an opportunity – for any content generator, but it is particularly dangerous when that content is journalistic, and therefore impacts on the construction of meaning. When a journalist is building content in order to please an aggregators’ algorithms, the incentive system becomes detached from the underlying goal of informing what is most important, even if it’s not ‘sexy.’

In tandem, Google and Facebook also control the main source of income: digital advertising. Not only has this led to market abuse by the major platforms, it further incentivises a vicious feedback loop through which content generators debase the quality of their product in order to create as much viral or clickable content as possible, in order to build digital traffic to sell advertising using Google and Facebook’s tools.

European regulators were at the forefront with their digital copyright directive, granting a right to news publishers to sit on the negotiating table with Big Tech in order to receive proper payment for their contribution to the ecosystem. In Australia, Parliament passed a bill that established an arbitration mechanism forcing negotiations to reach an endpoint. In that case, both Google and Facebook went through phases, blocking out news content in certain geographies, launching charity funds and grants, before finally accepting that some sort of monetary payment for news content is necessary. These are all welcome steps in a decade-long battle, but more needs to be done.

Both Google and Facebook have made pledges to “invest” US$1 billion over the next three years in deals with publishers, but they continue to act unilaterally, with a clear intention to minimise the impact of further regulation. Both companies continue to use the anachronistic argument of “paying for links” which would “undermine the basic principles of an open and free web.” Nothing could be farther from the truth – publishers are not looking to charge for links but to get the platforms to pay for their profitable use of news content, in the same way as they pay record labels, production studios, and other copyright holders. News content is only different in nature because it is quickly perishable (think of breaking news) and consists of multiple iterations (or stories) being produced at all times. Whether links are paid for or not is a whole other question – both Google and Facebook’s entire business model is built on paid links, which have existed for as long as the Internet.

At stake is the health of the information ecosystem, and therefore the robustness of democracy. This is the time for everyone with a vested interest in a strong field of journalistic production to act.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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