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EDITORIAL

A way for Congress to make Facebook and Google vs. the news media a fair fight

Publishers should be given the power to band together and negotiate with the platforms on more equal footing.

Globe staff illustration

Journalism is as vital as ever. Readers have been eager for news on the pandemic, the racial reckoning, and the tussle over the landmark social spending bill in Washington. And local outlets continue to do vital accountability reporting on City Hall corruption and highway safety.

But the media’s long, troubling slide continues even amid avid news consumption. There have been layoffs and furloughs. And Poynter reports that over 90 local newspapers have shuttered during the pandemic, including the Hudson Sun and the Sandwich Broadsider here in Massachusetts. To some extent, this decline reflects the broadening divergence in economic prosperity overall: Newspapers in thriving cities (like Boston) are still doing fine, while almost 200 counties in the United States now have no newspaper at all.

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The sharp economic downturn that followed the arrival of the coronavirus played a role in the recent losses. But it only exacerbated a larger problem — the steady loss of advertising revenue to tech behemoths Google and Facebook, which now control over half of the US digital advertising market.

The platforms, which depend on journalism to fill out their searches and newsfeeds, have made modest payments to some outlets over the years. Globe management says this newspaper has an agreement with Facebook, but declined to provide specifics. Google has approached the Globe too.

But no single news organization has the clout to negotiate a fair deal with companies as powerful as the tech giants. There is simply no historical precedent for firms that exercise so much power over the flow of information throughout so much of the world.

So Congress should follow the lead of Australia and give publishers the power to band together and negotiate with the platforms on more equal footing — hopefully winning the kind of payments that can keep American journalism afloat and help preserve our fragile democracy.

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The platforms will point out that they direct a lot of traffic to news media sites. And that’s true. But that’s not the whole story.

Google is no longer in the business of just helping you find what you’re looking for and sending you on your way. Two-thirds of searches on the site now start and end on Google. Little news snippets, included in the search results, are enough to sate some readers.

And when you visit Google on your phone and click on a story, you’re not really jumping to the news outlet’s site as you might think. You’re viewing a stripped-down, built-for-speed replica of the story inside a Google system called Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP. That system puts limits on the advertising and subscription revenue the outlet can collect.

And as you click through Google’s news carousel, the platform is collecting all sorts of data on you that it can sell to advertisers — reinforcing its dominant position in the marketplace and further squeezing news outlets and other publishers.

The legislation before Congress, sponsored in the House by Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline and Colorado Republican Ken Buck, and in the Senate by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Louisiana Republican John Kennedy, would give publishers a four-year exemption from antitrust laws for the purpose of banding together to negotiate a deal with the tech giants.

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This is not upending capitalism; it’s simply allowing for fair talks. Any deal would be required to benefit all news publishers, providing vital support to small outlets as well as large ones. And, if a deal can’t be reached, Cicilline has suggested he would like to include a provision making the federal government an arbitrator— ensuring the tech platforms would provide some kind of payment at the end of the process.

That would put the legislation in line with Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, approved in February, which has proved effective in forcing the platforms to make deals with news organizations of all sizes. Facebook resisted the measure at first, blocking users from viewing and sharing Australian news content for several days to extract some concessions. But it eventually went along.

Congress can get something similar done. And it must. The health of journalism is critical for the health of democracy.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.