Snippet Wars: Phoney claims of content theft against Facebook and Google

By Ian Harvey

We’ve heard a lot of noise lately as the media sector ramps up a campaign to squeeze money from web giants Google and Facebook for the presumed theft of their content.

What rubbish.

Put it this way, if UNIFOR’s Jerry Dias and Brunswick News’ Jamie Irving were my lawyers arguing for a levy on Facebook and Google, I’d fire them for incompetence.
Simply put, despite the acres of newsprint and research available to them they have failed miserably to make their case. To flip it around, if I were the judge in this matter I would dismiss it with costs awarded to Facebook and Google.
Here’s Dias’ argument and here is Irvings.

They claim Facebook and Google profit through purloined content lifted from newspapers. This content is gathered by and published at the expense of newspapers whose model is to make money for their shareholders by selling advertising both in the paper and online and through the cover price of their product or online subscriptions.

Yet no one can explain how they are losing money because of Facebook and Google in a clear and simple manner. As Financial Post columnist Terence Corcoran pointed out recently – no doubt to the chagrin of his employers for breaking ranks – we’re arguing over snippets, not entire tracts of text.

The issue is pretty simple though the harm is ill-defined.

I have some skin in this game since I have made my living from journalism for more than 43 years, the last 16 as a freelancer, a precarious self-employment which nonetheless has provided well for me and my family until recently. As clients fold and budgets shrink I am keenly aware that newspapers are dying as my own income plummets.

The reasons are manifold. Classified ads are no longer the high profit cash cow since and appeared. Their audience has lost the newspaper habit, preferring to go to websites on their mobiles or laptop screens and so subscriptions and readership have plummeted which has, in turn, depressed the value of those large display ads. Concurrently, online advertising brings in a tenth of revenues that in-paper ads attract.

Facebook and Twitter make money. Newspapers, generally in Canada do not.
Newspapers ain’t what they used to be

None of this is news. The result is higher costs, lower revenues and ultimately, smaller newsrooms fewer journalists and less content. The irony, of course, is that the web is killing the golden goose of content and threatens its own buoyancy. But that’s a story for another day. As the saying goes, we’ll cross that bridge when it collapses.

Back to the Snippet Wars. When I see an article or factoid I often post it on my Facebook page, or Twitter to share with my friends. Either I disagree vehemently with the article or it supports my views and my friends are free to pile on, read the story and then add their comments, pro or con, on my Facebook page.
Thus, I’ve driven traffic to that publication’s website, a good deed if there ever was one.

Facebook or Twitter, in and of itself, does not post news content. We users do and we see it every day: as noted, it’s usually a lead-in explaining why the content is worthy of examination and the link which brings up the headline and a snippet, a paragraph describing the news story or column awaiting perusal.

In fact, the newspapers themselves do this and designate editors and reporters to post links to stories on Facebook and Twitter as they are available. Some are posted under the reporter’s name, others are posted by the official page of the publication itself.

What money did the publication lose when those readers clicked on the link and read the story? They were counted as traffic which in turn drives digital ad revenue and the newspaper had an opportunity to convert the visitor to a subscriber of their product.
Indeed, in the case of two Toronto newspapers, the link is a tease since you must be a subscriber to read past the headline.

Do Facebook or Twitter get a kickback? No. Do they insert their own ads on the newspaper web page? No. Do they derive any revenue beyond nurturing their own community of users whom they segment for their own advertisers? No.
In fact, without traffic driven organically from Facebook, Twitter and Google, we’d never find these stories. Nor would we be able to access the archives easily since that too is traffic and ultimately some revenue for newspapers.

Speaking of Google, in which the issue is not the same as Facebook or Twitter links, coincidentally, the morning after I posted this piece, the National Post ran an editorial which did a better job of explaining the tort.

“Google effectively forces media outlets to use AMP (Google proprietary technology), and comply with its other policies, if they want to be featured in the search results.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Senate committee on commerce, science and transportation, “In order to comply with the AMP format, publishers must allow Google to host the content on Google’s web servers and must agree to allow Google to present their content in virtually any context Google chooses. Further, publishers must sign over broad rights to Google that allow Google to use news outlets’ content in any Google products.”

Still, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist has not not been impressed with the arguments thus far.

” Canadian Heritage Minister has described Facebook as “immoral” for linking to content without payment, but in light of what actually takes place, the comment might be better directed at lobbying campaigns that demand payments for content that the media lobby posts itself to social media.”
In an earlier post on the release the report designed to get the government’s action from News Media Canada, the lobby group representing newpaper publishers, he says:

“………one could easily read the 41 page report and not realize that companies such as Google and Facebook do not publish full versions of news articles without a licence. Indeed, rather than “taking” content, links to news articles are posted by their users, which then send interested readers back to the original source. In fact, the media companies themselves are typically responsible for posting their own articles and granting a licence for their use.”

I agree and in my submission, newspaper publishers benefit from the traffic driven to their sites by communities sharing items of interest on Facebook or Twitter.
Meanwhile, Google is little more than a guide to find articles dealing with subject matter of interest and plays no role in stealing content at all.
They may have a case on advertising but that’s an easy fix without a levy and transfer of wealth.

Just what is Dias upset about?

“The real problem is that they have cornered the market on digital advertising around the globe by scraping our personal data to give advertisers an irresistible product.”

Wow. Imagine that. Someone came in with a better business model, one that requires no payment from users and merely solicits basic information about them and tracks their behaviour, entry fees they are more than willing to give. No one forces anyone to get a Facebook account.

Ironically, however, that’s how they sold display ads, by selling the eyeballs of their readers, most whom were subscribers. So they knew, the names, addresses of their readers which meant they had a good idea by postal code or neighbourhood of income, ethnicity and gender. They even knew, generally, since newspapers always lean to the left or right, what the political affinity of their readers probably was.

Yet they missed the boat, ignoring the digital revolution, like the Titanic sailing head-on into a field of icebergs.
Of course, newspaper websites are free to do the same but they are stuck in a model that requires them to focus on imprinting ink on dead trees and then trucking their product all over in search of dwindling buyers.

Therein lies the incompetence of the pleadings: They have shown no harm or foul, no tort worthy of compensation.
They talk a lot about lost advertising revenues which have migrated to Facebook and Twitter but that’s because those entities have captured the audience which newspapers once controlled.

If we followed this logic across the board, we’d have to tax Amazon and Ebay and Aliexpress because their online offerings have seriously dented traditional bricks and mortar retails.
Or maybe they just built a better mousetrap while the establishment snoozed?

In reality publishers are demanding the federal government tax these entities and pass that money back to them to subsidize their own lack of acumen in formulating a better business model which will roll back the sea of red ink they are floundering in.

There is no harm, no foul and the case for government intervention is unproven. The campaign here is merely to find a scapegoat to obfuscate the industry’s complete failure to find a sustainable business model on their own.

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