California wants Big Tech to pay for news. Google is fighting back.

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correction

A previous version of this article said the amount of money Google will provide to Canadian news organizations was $100 million. It is 100 million Canadian dollars. The article has been corrected.

SAN FRANCISCO — For years, governments around the world have waged a bitter fight with Google and Meta over whether the Big Tech giants should pay for the news stories and videos that show up in search results and on social media. Now that fight has come to their home turf — the United States.

California politicians are advancing a bill that would force Google and Meta — which owns Facebook and Instagram — to pay news publishers each time they display pieces of their articles or show links to them in search results or on social media. The companies are lobbying furiously to block it, saying the law would enact a “link tax” and upend the free flow of information online.

Now, Google is taking its resistance a step further, by completely blocking news links for California-based news organizations from showing up in search results for some Californians. Google won’t say how many people it is blocking news for, but called the move a “short-term test” in a blog post announcing it earlier this month.

Politicians and news publishers have shot back. “This is a dangerous threat by Google” that is “clearly an abuse of power and demonstrates extraordinary hubris,” said Mike McGuire, a Democratic state senator in California who is sponsoring the bill.

“These actions by Google show why a bill is necessary. It’s seriously concerning that one company can essentially cut off the free flow of information to Californians,” said Brittney Barsotti, general counsel for the California News Publishers Association.

Over 350 news publishers signed an April 18 letter supporting the bill, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Google’s action is the latest move in a growing clash between the tech giants and the news industry. After years of shrinking advertising revenue, layoffs and newspaper bankruptcies, news organizations are increasingly turning to governments to enact new rules forcing the tech platforms to share some of the money they make from the web with journalism organizations.

Proponents argue the laws are a fair way to keep journalism alive, while the tech companies say requiring payment to post links and portions of public news articles goes against the spirit of an open and free internet, and could open them up to never-ending legal challenges from non-journalistic organizations that want similar deals.

Meta has said it will block all news links on its social platforms if the bill is passed into law.

“They [Big Tech] really, really hate these laws. And they’re doing whatever they can to stop them,” said Anya Schiffrin, director of the technology, media and communications specialization at Columbia University’s school of international and public affairs.

So far, California news publishers say they haven’t seen a major impact from Google’s moves, Barsotti said. Some individual Californians have reported not being able to access the websites of local papers, she said.

The News Media Alliance, an industry group representing 2,200 news organizations across the country, accused Google of potentially breaking competition law and sent letters to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission asking the agencies to investigate Google’s move. A spokesperson for the FTC declined to comment. A spokesperson for the DOJ did not return a request for comment.

For two decades, Google and Facebook have steadily increased their grip over the world of advertising. Google made $65.5 billion in ad revenue in the fourth quarter of 2023 alone, while Facebook made $40.1 billion in the same time frame. Meanwhile, news organizations that used to thrive off ads and classifieds have shrunk. Thousands of local newspapers in the United States have closed, and tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs.

As the news industry adapted to the internet, Facebook, Google and other online platforms became key to how it reached readers. For years, Facebook brought a flood of traffic to news publishers, allowing internet-native organizations like BuzzFeed and Vice Media to grow quickly. But in the past few years, Meta has de-emphasized news, cratering those companies’ businesses and leading to a new wave of layoffs. Google remains the most important source of traffic for most news organizations, and the place where most people go to learn about the world and find relevant news.

In 2021, Australia passed a law requiring Meta and Google to negotiate payments with news publishers for having their content on their sites. The companies fought back viciously, with Meta shutting down all news links on its platform and Google threatening to pull its entire search engine from Australia. But the government and the companies found a compromise, and payments were eventually negotiated. News organizations in the country say the deals have allowed them to hire more journalists, especially in underserved rural parts of the country.

Canadian news organizations and politicians took note. Soon, they were pushing their own law. The tech giants fought back again, with Google running a similar “test” as the one it is running now in California, blocking some Canadians from seeing news on search results. Meta went further, and blocked all links to news content on its site.

When some people struggled to find important news about wildfires in the summer of 2023 because of the Facebook news ban, the fight became a national political issue. Opposition politicians blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for hastily pushing a bad bill that would backfire and actually hurt Canadian news organizations. Eventually, Google and the government made a compromise, and the company agreed to set up a yearly $73.5 million or 100 million Canadian dollar news fund that would be distributed to news providers in the country.

Meta, for its part, has held the line. News links are still completely blocked on Facebook and Instagram in Canada. That has led to a “significant drop-off in traffic for Canadian news organizations,” said Dwayne Winseck, a communications professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. But it’s too early to tell if that drop in traffic will lead to a similar drop in revenue, he said.

The hit from Meta might be manageable simply because the company has already heavily cut the amount of news that it promotes to its users in its algorithms. Were Google to block news in California or anywhere else, the impact would be much bigger, said Blayne Haggart, an associate political science professor at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario.

“Google has sold itself as the interface between people and the world’s knowledge,” Haggart said. Keeping people from accessing news through Google would be “almost an act of war against a country,” he said, because the free access of information is so important to a functioning society.

Not every publisher in California supports the bill. In an editorial published last week, the CEO of the Jewish News of Northern California, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, wrote that the bill could “destroy our discoverability on the internet” if it led to Google following through on blocking news content.

The Chamber of Progress, a trade group representing tech companies including Google and Meta, said on its website that some small news publishers including the Alameda Post and the Times of San Diego oppose the bill, in addition to other business groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce.

“Google and other big tech companies aren’t stealing news, they’re bringing readers to it,” said Chris Jennewein, the editor and publisher of the Times of San Diego. “They’ve built an ecosystem that makes the news far more accessible to everyone.”

Adam Gillitt, the publisher of the Alameda Post, pointed to testimony he gave late last year at a California Senate hearing on the bill, where he suggested that Big Tech companies instead be taxed and the money put into a public fund for publications “based on need and value to the communities they serve,” rather than based on the number of times their content shows up next to ads.

Internet freedom advocates have also expressed concerns about government rules forcing tech companies to pay for links or content. The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation have opposed a federal bill called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act that would make an exception in antitrust law to allow news organizations to collectively bargain with Big Tech platforms to strike deals for payment for their content. Letting news organizations sue tech platforms for limiting their reach, something the California act also includes, is a “direct assault” on the right for companies to moderate content online, opening up a whole new set of issues, a group of open internet organizations said in a 2022 letter to legislators.

The California bill would allow news organizations to apply to Google and Meta for a portion of the money made on ads shown next to their content or links to their sites. The tech companies would have to make the payments every quarter, and couldn’t penalize news organizations for applying for the payments by ranking them lower in their algorithms. News organizations who receive the payments would have to make annual reports proving that they spent it on journalism.

Google’s vice president of global news partnerships Jaffer Zaidi argued in the company’s recent blog post that the California bill would benefit hedge funds that have already been buying up local news organizations and turning them into low-quality content machines. “We have long said that this is the wrong approach to supporting journalism,” Zaidi wrote.

Still, the bill is moving forward.

“The last thing we need is to have a hollowed-out or collapsing news media. It’s terrible for democracy, it’s terrible for local communities. All it does is empower the proliferation of fake news,” said Scott Wiener, a Democratic California state senator representing San Francisco who supports the bill.

“Google is having a temper tantrum,” Wiener said. “My hope is that Google will get over it and come to the table to work out a solution.”

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