Meta threatens to block news on Facebook and Instagram in California

In what looks like another attempt to threaten lawmakers into submission, Meta said it would block all news articles in the US state of California if it passes a bill that would tax the profits Facebook and Instagram make from distributing them.

The California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), if passed, would funnel money from the tech platforms to media organizations. Under the measure, around 70% of the money collected from such a “usage fee” would support newsrooms throughout the state.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland, the measure could become a lifeline to local news outlets that have been watching their advertising revenue plunge in recent years. This money, of course, has moved to platforms such as Facebook or Instagram.

"As news consumption has moved online, community news outlets have been downsized and are closing at an alarming rate," Wicks said at a hearing on the bill earlier this month. She said more than 100 news organizations have closed down in the past decade.

Warning ignored

"Every day, journalism plays an essential role in California and in local communities, and the ability of local news organizations to continue to provide the public with critical information about their communities and enabling publishers to receive fair market value for their content that is used by others will preserve and ensure the sustainability of local and diverse news outlets," the bill reads.

However, Meta, the parent company for both Facebook and Instagram, has – not for the first time – reacted by deploying its favorite weapon, a threat. The firm’s spokesman said on Twitter that the legislation would force Meta to block the sharing of news articles on both social media sites in California.

"If the Journalism Preservation Act passes, we will be forced to remove news from Facebook and Instagram, rather than pay into a slush fund that primarily benefits big, out-of-state media companies under the guise of aiding California publishers," Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, said on Wednesday.

"Meta’s threat to take down news is undemocratic and unbecoming. We have seen this in their playbook before."

Danielle Coffey.

Meta has also argued that the journalism industry’s hard times actually predate the rise of social media, and that news makes up less than 3% of most Facebook users’ feeds.

But the California State Assembly ignored the warning and voted 46-6 to pass the bill and advance it to the State Senate. Before the vote, media organizations poured harsh criticism on Meta’s efforts to suppress the initiative.

“Meta’s threat to take down news is undemocratic and unbecoming. We have seen this in their playbook before and they have been publicly admonished in other countries for this behavior,” Danielle Coffey, executive vice president of the News Media Alliance trade group, said in a statement.

Australia as an example

Indeed, another tech giant, Google, has blocked news links for about five weeks in Canada in anticipation of the passing of the Bill C-18, which would require tech firms to pay publishers for linking to or otherwise repurposing their content online.

Meta is reportedly preparing to do the same. Reporters Without Borders, an international organization advocating freedom of the press and freedom of information, earlier called the company’s threats an “unacceptable blackmail.”

Matt Pearce, a reporter at Los Angeles Times, also attacked Meta for the company’s attitude to the news media and its survival.

“This is why journalists need to forge ahead with holding the platforms accountable with bills like CJPA. The platforms have skimmed from our work, bought off publishers with ‘charitable’ grants, then act like bullies the moment they face accountability,” Pearce said in a Twitter thread.

Australia’s example can be inspiring. In 2021, Big Tech firms were also threatening the country over its proposed law that would have forced companies like Facebook to pay publishers for linking to their stories. Facebook even blocked all news on its platform in Australia.

A compromise was quickly reached, and the changes meant that the Australian government would not apply the new rules to Facebook (now rebranded as Meta) if the firm demonstrated it had signed enough deals with media outlets to pay them for content.

More than two years later, it’s clear that Australia’s news media has reasons to celebrate the government’s decision not to back down.

Deals struck between Google and Facebook and the country’s media companies have injected over $140 million into Australian journalism in around a year, according to Rod Sims, the former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer who initiated the bill.

The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida reported last year that outlets throughout Australia were now hiring droves of new reporters. Thanks to the deals struck, there are even too many job vacancies in news organizations.

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