In other words, if Ottawa follows Australia and puts forward a bill forcing tech giants to share revenue with the news business, Facebook would drop the A-bomb on Canadian journalism too. (File Photo: Charles Deluvio / Unsplash)
Shortly after Facebook posted news from its platform in Australia, I spent an hour on the phone with Kevin Chan, Public Policy Director at Facebook, Inc. in Canada.
He told me that he is “working really hard to prevent that result in Canada”. In other words, if Ottawa follows Australia and puts forward a bill forcing tech giants to share revenue with the news business, Facebook would drop the A-bomb on Canadian journalism too.
Chan would prefer to work out partnerships with Canadian journalism. He said Facebook has allocated $ 10 million to various news projects over the past four years. He promised, “In 2021 we will do a lot more.” But don’t put a gun to our heads, he said basically, or we’ll fight back.
Render to Caesar
I actually share many of Chan’s views. Here is one. Last fall, the lobby group representing the news industry in Canada released a report on the leveling of the digital playing field, claiming a law similar to that in Australia would make Canada $ 620 million a year. It also says: “Such a path would make up for a lot [our] Decline in Revenue, ”which means the web giants advertising dollars are somehow distracting from the news business.
This premise is wrong. What actually happened is that Google and Facebook made the business model that helped older media thrive in the analog age when print and airwaves ruled the world much better adapted to the digital age.
(Washington Post), Author provided
A quote from the Washington Post Company’s 1972 annual report sums it up well: “… a quality product for our audiences and a quality audience for our advertisers …” Newspapers and broadcasters were attention-grabbers. They were staged spectacularly by the web giants.
Four out of every five dollars that Google makes is advertising dollars. On Facebook it is 98 percent! In 2020, their advertising revenue was an impressive $ 310 billion worldwide, including $ 7.6 billion in Canada alone.
(Data from Facebook and Google annual reports as well as the Canadian research project on media concentration), Author provided
Journalism is worth something
Again, while I applaud their success, Google and Facebook must acknowledge that some of that success rests on the shoulders of others. The attention with which they sell ads is generated in part by news content. I asked Chan how much. “Zero,” he replied. The value for Facebook is in the social link. “It is not true that news has any value on Facebook.”
And here we part. In the journal About Journalism, Tristan Mattelard playfully documented how Facebook wooed news organizations to gain high quality content on its burgeoning platform.
Last fall, I estimated that 5.3 percent of Facebook ad revenue between January 1, 2018 and June 30, 2020 was generated from news content. I have been repeating the exercise for the past few weeks but with a larger sample of 1.9 million posts published in 2020 on Facebook pages managed in Canada.
(Data from CrowdTangle), Author provided
There is a lot of news on Facebook. Nearly 20 percent of all the posts in my sample came from media sites, from CTV News to the Lake Cowichan Gazette. But news is Facebook’s broccoli. It leads to far fewer interactions than the viral content that is normally found on the platform.
Only 7.3 percent of the total interactions in my sample came from media sites. I apply that more reasonable percentage to Facebook’s ad revenue to estimate that Mark Zuckerberg’s company made $ 210 million in 2020 thanks to Canadian journalism.
I acknowledge that this number is an incomplete estimate. It is based on the little data that Facebook gives researchers access to. But it is the least imperfect. When asked by a La Presse journalist, Chan said my methodology was based on “false hypotheses” which made my “conclusions wrong”.
Chan told me Facebook doesn’t sell ads with content. More interactions don’t mean more money. I get this: if I read an article by Le Devoir three times, it won’t make more advertising dollars. Facebook sells eyeballs.
However, some of those eyeballs are turning to Facebook to find out what’s going on in their community, province, and country. With that in mind, I don’t think news is of any value to Facebook. Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice president of global operations, wrote in 2013: “People come to Facebook not only to see and talk about what is happening to their friends, but also to read the news and discover what is going on in the world she’s going around. “my emphasis).
A question of power
Platforms sense the heat and respond with a carrot or a whip. Google has chosen the carrot strategy and signed a deal with News Corp., Australia’s largest publisher. She is also actively working on similar partnerships with Canadian media. A Québec publisher I spoke to told me the deals start in the summer of 2021 and could convert to “millions” of dollars.
But it’s a poisoned carrot. What guarantee do we have that such partnerships will continue without a legal framework? In the fine print of these deals, I saw a clause that said that Google could pull the plug with a 90 day written notice.
There is a huge imbalance in power here. On the one hand, two international companies whose combined revenues in 2020 were slightly above New Zealand’s GDP. On the flip side, Canadians read media like never before – traffic to news publishers’ websites grew 80 percent between 2017 and 2020 – but their revenues continue to grow despite their success. They are at a disadvantage if they ask Facebook to transfer some of the revenue from Canadian journalism.
The Australian approach aims to correct this imbalance. The conflict between Canberra and the platforms is a historic battle between public and private interests. The public interest is one of the core values of journalism. I always tell my journalism students, “You will work in different organizations, but you will all work for the public.”
Asking Facebook to share its earnings is not an attack on the internet. Recall that in 2010 Tim Berners-Lee warned us that Facebook’s “walled garden” was a recipe for abuse. Nor is it a 20th century remedy for a 21st century problem. It is a legal requirement to support an institution working in the public interest.
Facebook’s move to Australia is an abuse of private power to counter a public entity acting in the public interest. If there was any reason for Canada to follow Australia’s lead, it would be.
Jean-Hugues Roy, Professor at the School of Media at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM)
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.