Charles Gutjahr

Melbourne, Australia

Facebook should be allowed to link, but not to steal

20 Feb 2021 — a 3 minute read on opinion

Oh I am loving this Facebook news thing. Best thing to happen on the internet in ages.

It's great because it means this important topic of tech monopolies has entered into public consciousness. It has international attention and is firing up innumerable debates. We need that!

Too bad the quality of public debate isn't great. A lot of the comment is simply wrong, and it often misses the point. I reckon there has been too much focus on money instead of the important questions of market power, anti-competitive conduct, viability of news media business, etc. It is a big and complex area, so perhaps no surprise debate hasn't taken on the substantial matters yet; I remain hopeful we'll get there eventually. If you want that broader perspective now I recommend reading the final report of the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry because that's what led to all this... and you'll notice that Facebook paying news media is hardly mentioned. The money not the point.

The topic is too broad for me to deal with all at once, so today I will take on just one misconception: links.

I am an absolute believer that websites should be allowed to link to anything they want without permission, and without payment. Links on the internet use URLs: a few dozen characters that uniquely identify a place on the internet. For example is the URL for my website.

Society needs ways to refer to things. When I speak to you in person I can say "The Age" to refer to that newspaper; they own that name but they cannot and should not be allowed to prevent me referring to them. When I speak to you on a website I can say to be more specific and refer you directly to what I mean, but it is the same concept: just a reference. I've taken nothing from The Age, and it is up to them what to show on that URL and indeed whether to show anything at all. The law should not prevent anyone from using links because it should not prevent society from referring to things.

However Facebook doesn't just link to news, it steals it too.

I preface the following by saying I don't know what the laws define as stealing, indeed I don't know if the law has even considered these specific scenarios yet. And perhaps Facebook and Google do obtain permission from some publishers to use their copyrighted news, and those situations would not be stealing.

When you post a link to a news story on Facebook, Facebook does not just include a link. It also steals a photo from the story to display on Facebook. I say steal because it doesn't just link to the photo, it copies it from the source to its own website such as then displays its copy in the Facebook feed. The publisher no longer controls that photo; Facebook does. Facebook also steals the headline from the source, because surely a headline would be copyrighted just as much as the article itself?

Then when you click on a link in the Facebook app, Facebook steals control of the experience. It doesn't open the news story in your website browser or the publisher's app, instead it opens it in a browser inside the Facebook app. This is no trivial distinction: keeping you instead the Facebook app surely means you're more likely to return to Facebook instead of continuing to read more news articles or browse elsewhere on the internet. Taking control means taking attention and so taking advertising dollars away from the publisher.

And don't forget that Facebook steals control of when and who that article is displayed to. When I post a link to a news story Facebook would not show that post to all of you. Judging by how few likes my links to news stories would get, it seems Facebook would only show news stories to a small fraction of you... far fewer than when I posted without a link. It's enough that I would avoid linking to news stories because I want you to see my posts!

I think Facebook should be allowed to link to news stories without permission and without payment. But only link: don't steal the photo, don't steal the headline, don't display the article inside the Facebook app. Those things are not linking and news media should have every right to negotiate terms and seek compensation from Facebook if that is done.

© 2023 Charles Gutjahr