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April 12, 2024updated 15 Apr 2024 9:35am

Google trials removal of California news sites in response to proposed ‘link tax’

It follows similar, ultimately empty, threats to block news in Canada.

By Bron Maher

Google says it is removing links to California news sites from its search engine for a “small percentage” of users there as the state legislature weighs whether to pass a law that would force tech giants to pay publishers for their content.

The tech giant is also pausing new payments to publishers in California through its News Showcase, Google News Initiative and other product and licensing.

The California Journalism Preservation Act (CPJA) is currently pending in the legislature, and if passed would require Meta and Alphabet, the parent companies to Facebook and Google, to negotiate with publishers over potential compensation owed for the use of their content.

The bill is similar to Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code and Canada’s Online News Act, which both caused Meta to pull news from its platforms in those countries. Meta quickly relented in Australia and returned news links to its services, but news remains blocked on Facebook in Canada.

In a blog post on Friday, Google vice president for global news partnerships Jaffer Zaidi said the company is beginning “a short-term test” that will involve “removing links to California news websites, potentially covered by CJPA, to measure the impact of the legislation on our product experience.

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“Until there’s clarity on California’s regulatory environment, we’re also pausing further investments in the California news ecosystem, including new partnerships through Google News Showcase, our product and licensing program for news organisations, and planned expansions of the Google News Initiative.”

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Zaidi claimed the CPJA “would create a ‘link tax’ that would require Google to pay for simply connecting Californians to news articles” and argued that the CJPA is supported by “media conglomerates and hedge funds” who may use revenue generated by the law to “continue to buy up local California newspapers, strip them of journalists, and create more ghost papers that operate with a skeleton crew to produce only low-cost, and often low-quality, content”.

Publishers lobbying for news payment laws around the world argue that Meta and Alphabet have swallowed up much of the advertising revenue that used to sustain the news industry. They claim that although they produce the expensive content that attract users to the tech platforms in the first place, they do not receive adequate compensation in return.

The tech giants in turn argue that they increase the size of publishers’ audience, at no cost to those businesses, and dismiss suggestions that their users are even particularly interested in news in the first place. Zaidi claimed in his blog post that “just 2% of queries on Google Search are news-related” while Meta has said less than 3% of posts people see on their news feeds are news links.

Responding to Google’s announcement on Friday, the leaders of US media unions Newsguild, Media Guild of the West and the Pacific Media Workers Guild issued a joint statement urging Californian politicians to “stand united against Google’s undemocratic threats to censor the work of California’s journalists by shutting off news access in the middle of an election year.

“Every voter’s access to information counts; California’s journalists are covering an ongoing congressional election in the 16th District, where two candidates received an equal number of votes. This is an extraordinarily inappropriate time for Google to experiment with which voters might or might not see news about elected officials and candidates for office.”

In both Canada and Australia Google has struck payment deals with publishers following the passage of news payment laws. Google agreed to pay publishers CA$100m annually late last year despite earlier threats to remove Canadian news links from its Search, News and Discover platforms. (It did trial removing the links for around one million people on Google News, however.)

One of the architects of the Australian news payments law estimated that Meta and Alphabet have agreed to pay publishers more than AU$200m a year – although Meta announced last month that it will stop entering into deals to pay publishers potentially leading to a showdown with the Australian government, which has powers under the News Media Bargaining Code to compel the tech giants to negotiate.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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