Facebook Threatens to Nuke News in California if Forced to Pay Publishers

Facebook Threatens to Nuke News in California if Forced to Pay Publishers
May 2023

Meta lashed out at its home state on Wednesday, threatening to shut off access to news links on Facebook and Instagram in California if the legislature passed a bill forcing it to pay news publishers for their journalism.


The proposed bill, dubbed the California Journalism Preservation Act, would force social networks like Facebook and Instagram or search engines like Google to pay news publishers a "journalism usage fee" when users access articles and when they sell advertising against news content. New publishers, in turn, would be required to spend 70% of the funds they received from tech companies on paying journalists and news production. Meta, based in Menlo Park, California, vehemently opposes the bill and says lawmakers fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between social networks and publishers. Now, Meta's threatening to pull the plug on news altogether if it passes, as it did in Australia. The move could leave California's 39 million residents scrambling to find information.

"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 companies under the guise of aiding California publishers," the company said in a statement. Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo's request for comment.

Meta takes issue with the idea that it and other social networking companies are uniquely responsible for the decimation of news outlets, especially local ones, over the past two decades. One in five US newspapers have shut down since 2004. The California News Publishers Association, meanwhile, estimates some 52% of California residents get their news from Facebook. Big tech critics cast part of the blame for that tectonic shift on social media's meteoric ascent around the same time. Meta disagrees and claims the journalism industry was struggling prior to Facebook's dominance in the 2010s.

"The bill fails to recognize that publishers and broadcasters put their content on our platforms themselves and that substantial consolidation in California's local news industry came over 15 years ago, well before Facebook was widely used."

Facebook users, Meta told Gizmodo, generally aren't interested in news compared to other types of content. However, Facebook controls how often news links appear in users' newsfeeds. The company has decreased the prevalence of those links in recent years. Meta also took issue with the CJPA's assumption that its advertising can be neatly tied to news links: "Facebook advertisements are not linked to specific content being viewed but rather user characteristics. Ad revenue cannot be tied directly to journalism since content is substitutable."

The bill's lead sponsor, Oakland Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, pushed back against Meta's threat in a statement sent to Gizmodo.

"This threat from Meta is a scare tactic that they've tried to deploy, unsuccessfully, in every country that's attempted this," Assemblymember Wicks told Gizmodo. "It's egregious that one of the wealthiest companies in the world would rather silence journalists than face regulation."

How would California's online journalism bill work?

The California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), introduced by Oakland Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks with support from the Californian News Publishers' Association, would force tech companies to pay "journalism usage fees" when advertising is sold alongside local news articles appearing on a social network or search engine. The bill draws inspiration from similar federal legislation, though that bill died in Congress late last year. Both bills bear a striking resemblance to legislation in Canada and Australia, each of which Meta has vigorously opposed. All of these bills, in one way or another, are intended to serve as a form of digital reparations for news outlets crushed during the transition from print to digital media. The California bill advanced in the state's Assembly Judiciary Committee earlier this month with a unanimous 9-0 vote.

"As news consumption has moved online, community news outlets have been downsized and closed at an alarming rate," Wicks recently told The California Globe. "The dominant type platforms, both search engines and social networks, have such unrivaled market power that newsrooms are coerced to share the content they produce, which tech companies sell advertising against for almost no compensation in return." Wicks did not immediately respond to Gizmodo's request for comment.

Meta and Google have shown a willingness to go to the mat against legislation attempting to force them to pay for news. Both companies have said these bills mischaracterize their relationship with news publishers and ultimately amount to a "link tax." Back in 2021, Meta followed through on threats to cut off news access in Australia. Its social networks briefly cut off news access for an estimated 17 million users, leaving essential services like hospitals and fire services caught in the crossfire. Meta eventually brought news back to the platform but only after lawmakers agreed to a watered-down version of the bill that would let Facebook and Google agree to deals before being forced to enter arbitration with publishers. Meta is now playing that same game of tech policy hardball with lawmakers in Canada over its proposed Online News Act.

Big Tech firms aren't the only ones opposed to the current legislation. Earlier this month, a group of local California newspapers organized under Free Press Action wrote a letter to lawmakers saying the bill, as currently written, would do more harm than good. The coalition, which includes the Times of San Diego and Alameda Post, fears the bill would make it more difficult to access trusted news and could incentivize clickbait articles. Civil liberties groups like the ACLU of California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation also oppose the CJPA.

"The CJPA would reward the worst kinds of journalism and make it harder for platforms to protect users and the public from the spread of hateful and deceitful content, resulting in an internet ecosystem where more hate speech, misinformation and sensationalist clickbait proliferates online," the Free Press Action letter reads.

Update, 4:02 P.M. EST: Added statements from Assemblymember Wicks and Meta.