Google Blocks California Websites in Fight Over Paying for News

Google Blocks California Websites in Fight Over Paying for News

Google began blocking access to California news outlets for some users in the state, according to an announcement from the tech giant on Friday. And it’s all because Google is upset about proposed legislation that would force the company to pay some publishers for their content, something it’s calling a “link tax.”

Known as the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), the bill has passed California’s lower house, known as the Assembly, but still needs to be taken up by the state Senate and signed by Governor Gavin Newsom to become law. Newsom hasn’t come out with an opinion on the legislation yet.

“If passed, CJPA may result in significant changes to the services we can offer Californians and the traffic we can provide to California publishers,” Google said on Friday. “By helping people find news stories, we help publishers of all sizes grow their audiences at no cost to them.”

And while it’s certainly true that Google helps people find news stories, the problem is that much of the advertising money has gone to Big Tech platforms like Google and Facebook rather than the publishers who create the news content. That’s what this bill is trying to remedy in some way, by forcing Google to pay publishers.

Google has made similar threats after identical proposals were made in countries like AustraliaIndia, and Canada in recent years. In just about every case, Google has proposed turning off Google services like Search in the entire country but ultimately followed the law in each jurisdiction without too much disruption.

Meta’s Facebook has faced similar hurdles in other countries that want the company to pay for aggregating local news content, but while Google has acquiesced, Facebook has opted to pivot in an entirely new direction. That direction includes dropping news services altogether while insisting Facebook users don’t actually care about news.

Google acknowledged on Friday the battles it has waged in other countries, without mentioning it has paid out millions to publishers.

As we’ve shared when other countries have considered similar proposals, the uncapped financial exposure created by CJPA would be unworkable. If enacted, CJPA in its current form would create a level of business uncertainty that no company could accept. To prepare for possible CJPA implications, we are beginning a short-term test for a small percentage of California users. The testing process involves removing links to California news websites, potentially covered by CJPA, to measure the impact of the legislation on our product experience. 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 organizations, and planned expansions of the Google News Initiative.

Google didn’t respond to questions emailed Friday about precisely how many users in California are currently involved in this “testing process” to remove links to California news sites. It’s also not clear what may qualify as a California news site, given the borderless nature of the internet.

Google is arguing that California’s proposed legislation would only benefit large publishers, but some people charge that’s a red herring. As one commentator at Cal Matters recently wrote in an opinion column:

Critics argue that the CJPA would primarily benefit large media outlets, but the fact that large news organizations benefit is not necessarily a bad thing: they employ thousands of people, create jobs, conduct expensive investigations and lobby on behalf of journalism. They also generate and receive the most traffic from tech platforms.

Obviously, there are a number of different factors at play here and reasonable people can disagree on the role the government should play in keeping journalistic business models sustainable. But there’s no question that companies like Google hold monopolistic power over what news people can see around the world.

After all, the first thing companies like Google and Facebook have threatened when confronted with legislation to pay publishers is to turn off the spigot of news traffic to anyone in those countries. And if just a handful of companies have the power to do that, it’s hard to argue that free market solutions can fix the problem.

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