Link tax: How countries are forcing Big Tech to pay for the news

Digital freedomPrivacy news
3 mins
A newspaper with the map outline of Australia split in half.

This post was originally published on February 25, 2021.

In the latest tug-of-war between Big Tech companies and regulatory powers, Australia has successfully pushed Facebook and Google into signing deals with its biggest news publishers to share content on their platforms. Now other countries are taking note, and pushing regulations of their own to do the same thing in their countries.

How does Australia’s link tax work?

In a move to make online platforms pay cash to support local journalism, Australia passed a new statutory code that requires services like Facebook and Google to directly pay news corporations and publishers for showing articles on their sites or pay hefty fines. If the platform publishes a news article without an agreement with the news company, the fee is to be decided by a panel of arbitrators instead.

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This rule was initially met with resistance from both Google and Facebook. Google played hardball, threatening to pull out of Australia completely, arguing that the code forces Google to create a “link tax” system for Australian news, and Facebook also threatened to block links from Australian news sites from being shared globally on its platform.

Google eventually sealed last-minute deals with the biggest news publishers before the code came into effect last Wednesday, but Facebook stood firm, at least for a while, blocking links from Australian news sites and even government profile pages. Facebook shortly reversed this blanket ban on Australian links and, with a new amendment in the Media Code, it will have two months to negotiate with news publishers.

Other countries want to charge Big Tech for posting the news, too

It is not the first time Big Tech and news publishers have butted heads on the issue of sharing content without having to pay for it. In 2014, Google shut down Google News in Spain instead of paying a link tax to Spanish news sites.

A shift has since emerged, though, as Google appears to be taking a more conciliatory approach with countries like France, whose news sites it now pays to host on its new product, Google Showcase. In 2019, the EU approved an article in its copyright directive prohibiting online content providers from linking to news sites without the prior authority of the publisher. Member countries have until June of this year to implement their own version of a link tax, so it is quite likely we’ll be seeing similar deals being struck with Google across the region.

Read more: EU approves new copyright directive

The deals struck between Australian media groups like News Corp and Nine with Google and Facebook have set a precedent for other countries who are also intent on having their own reckonings with Big Tech.

A Canadian minister has voiced support for Australia’s statutory code, stating his country should follow suit. Australia’s success will also likely fuel the antitrust lawsuits Google is facing in the U.S., and has also been met with approval from Bing’s owner, Microsoft.

It is likely that what we’ll see similar deals struck between Big Tech and news publishers, although whether this will only be arranged between influential media outlets like News Corp or will be extended further to independent, local news publishers remains to be seen.

Link tax and you: A slippery slope for digital freedom

With media companies looking to apply copyright laws and fees for their content to appear on news-sharing platforms, these platforms in turn may become increasingly selective about the sites they choose to link to and limit what they share, thereby impacting the amount of information you can access.

Restricting access to information goes against the very fundamentals of a free internet, and while Facebook’s first ban on Australian content was temporary, such actions only further the splintering of the internet, and maintains the ever-present possibility of such bans, temporary and permanent, to happen again.

Read more: How to survive an internet shutdown

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.