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Why is it OK for rich guys to steal my work?

Elon Musk acquired Twitter in 2022.
(Britta Pedersen / Associated Press)
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Every day, what’s left of the once-mighty ranks of reporters across this country tap out stories meant to inform, entertain and expose.

Sometimes they are the work of minutes, the first bits of knowledge on breaking news such as fires, storms or even elections. Sometimes they are investigations that have taken years.

Inevitably, as soon as we publish, rich dudes with algorithms come in and sweep this work away for their own profit, like deodorant off a Target shelf. Every. Single. Story.

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Retail theft is causing a civic meltdown and inspiring a ballot measure to incarcerate repeat toothpaste thieves.

But billionaire tech bros dismantling democracy for profit, stealing thousands of times a minute by selling advertising against something they don’t own? That barely gets a shrug, even as more media professionals are laid off, more publications close, and reliable information becomes so scarce and hard to spot that truth itself has become political.

“It’s sad on many levels,” state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove) told me when I asked him what he thought of recent layoffs in media — including the loss of more than 100 of my colleagues at this paper, and cuts at other publications including the Wall Street Journal, Time, Condé Nast and the Messenger.

In all, nearly 600 news jobs were cut in January.

“It’s also sad on a democracy level,” Umberg said.

Umberg and state Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) are attempting to do what other countries have already done — stop the steal — with a bill that has unsurprisingly sparked more than $1 million in lobbying by Big Tech to kill it. That spending was uncovered by Queenie Wong, a reporter at this paper who was sadly part of the layoffs, and it forced Wicks and Umberg to shelve the measure last year.

They are determined to revive it this year — but it will depend on how buy-able their colleagues are. Because, of course, there will be more money poured into killing it, and more pressure from Big Tech to keep the whole mess out of the public eye. That pressure will extend from the Assembly floor all the way to the governor’s office.

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If California does not pass Assembly Bill 886, though, it means that our elected leaders are cowards or craven money grabbers who are content to watch our democracy crumble in exchange for campaign contributions. Honestly, it is that simple — and that dire.

“To me, it’s a basic fairness thing,” Wicks told me of the notion of internet platforms paying part of their profits to news publishers. “I think it is going to be hard for them to say they can’t do it here when they are doing it in other places.”

She is referring to Australia and Canada, which have had enough of Big Tech simultaneously raking in advertising dollars off news content while claiming that only a few people are actually looking for news on their platforms.

Both countries have passed laws — albeit flawed ones heavily softened by lobbying — that require Google and Meta (the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and others) to negotiate payments with news publishers.

A bill for a similar law here in the U.S., the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2022, is going nowhere in the Republican-dominated Congress, where a far-right contingent that rose to power on propaganda and lies has little interest in reining that in.

Which leaves California to lead the way — something the state is well positioned to do with its economic might, powerful enough to take on even the Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world.

“The lesson that you can take from the Canadian law is that [internet platforms] will pay,” Haaris Mateen told me. “And so the people of California are perfectly entitled to ask for payments to be made to journalism companies.”

Mateen is an assistant professor of finance at the University of Houston who has studied the issue. In November, he and his colleagues published a paper estimating that internet platforms would owe U.S. publishers between $11.9 billion and $13.9 billion a year if Congress passed the Journalism Preservation Act.

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Using the same methodology, he estimates Google would owe California news publishers $1.4 billion annually, and Facebook would owe $265 million a year. In 2023, Facebook’s revenue was $135 billion, and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, had $307 billion in revenue. So we are not talking about bankrupting these companies.

“I want Google to be economically successful. I want them to be one of the richest companies in the world,” Wicks said. “I also want them to do the right thing.”

Musk tweets a link to an unfounded conspiracy theory about Paul Pelosi to millions, showing that Twitter has become a powerful tool of right-wing attacks.

Oct. 30, 2022

Mateen and his colleagues also found that internet platforms and news publishers offer “complimentary services,” meaning they help each other make more money together than each would make alone — if internet companies weren’t just stealing their part of the equation.

Internet companies have long argued that news has little value to them, or their users, and therefore there’s nothing to pay for. One former internet executive recently claimed it was a “silly complaint” to protest the use of news without compensation because posting stories brings traffic to news sites and “Everybody wants traffic!”

Traffic is great. But traffic without revenue is worthless. And the idea that people aren’t looking for news online seems highly suspect (but the data is proprietary to the internet companies).

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Those Google searches for “Ukraine?” Are they really people looking for red borscht recipes, not updates on the war?

Searches for “L.A. storm?” Are users really not looking for information on current weather dangers, all from news outlets such as NBC, the Associated Press, and yes, the Los Angeles Times?

“Can you imagine a version of Google with no news in it?” Mateen wonders. “It would look like Amazon.”

But that is the main threat internet platforms are using to stop U.S. or California legislation — that if those laws are passed they will drop news from their sites. News publishers do fear this, because even the paltry amount they currently make from being searchable is crucial to spiraling bottom lines.

In protest of the Canadian law, Meta this summer blocked access to news on its sites for Canadians.

Pascale St-Onge, minister of Canadian heritage and a member of Parliament, warned at the time that “Facebook is trying to send a message, not only to Canada, but to other countries like New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.”

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But Mateen said that Canada is a much smaller market than the U.S. or even California, and it would be difficult for the internet giants to pull off that kind of ban here.

“The California government has much more bargaining power in this,” he said.

Google funded advertising against legislation that would require large tech platforms to pay news publishers.

Dec. 27, 2023

Mateen also warns that the window for fixing the problem is closing.

The urgency of acting now “is huge” because the coming age of AI is about to make the situation worse and more complicated, he warns.

Already, we are seeing experiments with companies using artificial intelligence to write news articles. The results have been less than impressive, but more is coming.

Mateen said that once the technology improves, which it will do quickly, platforms will sweep up articles and feed them into AI applications that mash them up like potatoes and spit out something it will dub original content.

These stolen-bits stories will be changed and entwined enough with multiple sources that it will be impossible to trace anything back to a single original article.

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No accountability, no trust — and no one to pay.

Creating a precedent now that news has a real value is imperative, so that when AI sucks it all in it is reasonable for news companies to demand that their content be licensed or otherwise compensated before its ground up and made untrackable.

Media can’t stop Big Tech themselves. It has tried, with subscriptions, one-off deals such as the agreement between Google and the New York Times and other desperate but futile attempts at finding “new models” that somehow fill the revenue gap without stopping the internet platforms from doing as they please with no consequence.

There is more than one problem plaguing the news industry, of course. But like retail theft, the news media need a systemic solution — government intervention because the thieves are too powerful, too organized and too brazen.

Whether that happens or not is going to come down to what the public demands — if we care as much about the theft of news as we do about deodorant.

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