Australia Is Fighting a Platform War on the Wrong Battlefield

Plus: Google’s ad software, the future of space travel, and the Texas governor’s weird tune.

Hi everyone. This week, I’ve resisted temptation and written about Australia without a single mention of kangaroos, shrimp on the barbie, or Naomi Watts. (Even though she once appeared in a TV movie version of one of my books.) G’day!

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The Plain View

When they started their respective companies, the founders of Google and Facebook had no idea that they would eventually find themselves charged with destroying the news industry. Google’s Page and Brin wanted to capture all the web, on the reasonable premise that anyone who set up a site on that open channel would welcome the traffic. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg didn’t even envision that people on his network would be swapping news links, but came around to the idea of the News Feed as a personalized newspaper, equating news with “stories” about parties, weddings, and who friended who. Like Google, Facebook assumed that the sites its users linked to would welcome the traffic.

One need only look to Australia this week to see that things didn’t work out that way. The news business in general is hurting, and some publishers, notably the powerful Rupert Murdoch, say that platforms profiting from their news content is a big reason why. This argument has won the favor of the country’s government, which is considering a law demanding that platforms like Google and Facebook negotiate compensation for the damage its behavior has done to news publications.

Though both companies deny culpability, Google this week decided to toss some millions from its vast profits to Murdoch and other publishers. (The deal is couched as part of an existing global program, but the timing inextricably links this arrangement to the impending law in Murdoch’s native country.) The ever-stubborn Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has dug his heels in, a move he makes so often that one suspects a team of cobblers is on call. Not even waiting for the law to pass, he ordered his team to change the News Feed to the No News Feed, wiping all links to news articles in Australian news feeds and also blocking links to Australian news sites worldwide. Facebook didn’t win any friends by executing the removal so ham-handedly that it wound up accidentally taking down government and public-interest sites offering vital information.

The weird thing about these machinations is that this war—which may well spread to other countries not happy with the platforms—is being fought on the wrong battlefield. Though the law doesn’t seem terribly specific about the issue, Australian lawmakers seem to have accepted the long-voiced Murdochian claim that Google and Facebook are stealing news content by linking to articles, sometimes even providing snippets. But that claim is bogus: The links are beneficial to the news organizations, as they send readers to their pages. If a news site wants to opt out, it can simply block the links. Where’s the harm?

But there is a real case that Facebook and Google have done damage to the news industry—by killing its business model via targeted ads. In the pre-internet days, publications were the prime means for businesses to reach certain audiences, whether by locality or interest. Advertisers might know that readers of The New York Times, WIRED, Ski Magazine, or Willamette Week are likely prospects for what they sell. So they would place an ad in the relevant publication. But the current sophisticated online ad model—dominated by Facebook and Google—doesn’t place ads by what site you visit. It targets you personally, wherever you go. It knows who you are by tracking you everywhere on the web and linking that information to other personal data. Then, no matter what site you happen to be on, it auctions off an ad to you personally. That cuts off a major reason for businesses to place their ads in actual publications.

The Australian solution does not address this issue. Instead, it demands that Google and Facebook bargain with publishers for subsidies, ostensibly to make up for all the value it drained from the news industry. While Rupert Murdoch will happily take those millions of bucks, snatching crumbs from digital behemoths is a lousy business model for a news industry that needs new ideas to compete. And it’s even worse for smaller news publications who don’t have the negotiating power to cut big deals with Google or Facebook.

I humbly suggest another approach: Focus on the ad model. After all, that’s the real problem. Users should be allowed to choose whether or not those platforms can scoop up their personal data and use it for targeted advertising—and “no” should be the default setting. That would not only restore users’ eroded privacy, but also provide an opportunity for news organizations to reclaim some of those lost advertising bucks.

Weirdly, the most serious effort right now to make that happen is Apple’s self-interested policy of giving users the option to prevent their data from being used for targeting. Lawmakers down under—and over here as well—should consider similar action. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg might consider giving his Australian users a break, at least until a law is passed. Restore the links. Your cobblers will thank you.

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Time Travel

Google’s ad model was once perfect: Its AdWords product ran auctions for “keywords” in search queries, with the winners getting to place ads alongside search results. Google made money, the advertisers exposed their wares to prospective customers, and users got valuable tips on who might give them what they searched for—without giving up their privacy. This changed when Google bought DoubleClick in 2007. I wrote about it in my book In the Plex (which is just out in paperback for its tenth anniversary): 

The very idea that Google would buy the biggest force in display advertising represented a shift from its original beliefs. Google’s original ad policy was based on Page and Brin’s premise that banner ads and their ilk were unwelcome intrusions. That view had clearly changed. Google was hearing from its AdSense customers that it would be easier to run online campaigns if they could go to one place for both search and display ads. Given that incentive, Google began to consider the ways that maybe display ads weren’t so bothersome to users. Because they drew on a user’s browsing history, display ads could sometimes be more relevant than AdSense ads. If you went to a wine-oriented website, for example, you might see an AdSense ad for a Sonoma vacation that might or might not interest you. But if you bought wine online all the time, the DoubleClick cookie would know that and maybe show you a banner ad about wine while you were on the Sports Illustrated site.

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Ask Me One Thing

Jose asks, “If you had to guess, in what year do you think space travel could happen, as shown in Alien, with big commercial ships traveling smoothly between planets?”

That’s a tough one, because I’m pretty sure that if this happens at all, it will be a very long time from now. So much so that it’s not so much figuring out what year it will happen, but what century. Also, Alien doesn’t seem like a great goal, considering the gastrointestinal outcomes. But planet-hopping might be fun, once we master traveling beyond the speed of light, which seems to require breakthroughs that physics could deny us. On the bright side, we do have interplanetary travel—in our literature, movies, and imaginations. These are informed by fantastic radio telescopes and deep-space probes. Plus we just landed on Mars again! So my answer is … now. And that’s as close as you, I, or Jeff Bezos will ever get to seeing it.

You can submit questions to Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

Texas is freezing, the power’s off, and the blame-shifting governor is singing a weird tune.

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Last but Not Least

We’re not visiting planets in distant galaxies, but we can put Mars on our playlist.

And maybe I spoke too soon about physics and light?

Parler is back. Does Australia want it to pay for news links too?

Want to up your work-from-home game? Learn from the masters at Twitch.

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