Big Tech, free-speech advocates join to oppose journalism bill

Opponents fear journalism bill could be added to defense policy measure

Sen. Amy Klobuchar says her bill would “preserve strong, independent journalism.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar says her bill would “preserve strong, independent journalism.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 6, 2022 at 1:29pm

Top social media companies and free speech advocates — groups that usually take opposing views over tech policy — are coming together to oppose a measure that would allow journalism organizations to jointly negotiate with tech companies.

The groups are opposing a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and co-sponsored by 14 senators from both parties. The bill would allow news organizations to collectively bargain for compensation in exchange for content distribution on platforms including Google, Facebook and others.

The matching House measure is sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and has dozens of co-sponsors from both parties. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a bipartisan, 15-7 vote in September. The House Judiciary Committee has not marked up Cicilline's bill. A flurry of advertising and letter writing recently is a measure of the companies' and groups' concern that the bill could become part of the defense authorization measure that lawmakers are seeking to finalize this week. 

The defense policy bill draft text released Tuesday didn't include the journalism provisions. 

“Local news is facing an existential crisis, with ad revenues plummeting, newspapers closing, and many rural communities becoming ‘news deserts’ without access to local reporting,” Klobuchar said in a statement after the committee vote in September. “To preserve strong, independent journalism, we have to make sure news organizations are able to negotiate on a level playing field with the online platforms that have come to dominate news distribution and digital advertising.”

In TV and online ads, social media companies are urging lawmakers to reject the journalism measure while free-speech groups wrote this week to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, urging them not to include it in any must-pass bills.

NetChoice, a trade group that represents several big social media and tech companies, including Amazon, Google, Meta, TikTok and Yahoo, launched a 30-second ad called Power Grab that opposes the measure.

“Washington liberals have a dangerous plan to bail out their allies in the media,” the ad says, featuring images of President Joe Biden, Schumer and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The measure would “silence conservative voices,” the ad says, asking people to “tell Senate conservatives to oppose JCPA,” an acronym for the measure known as Journalism Competition Preservation Act.

Despite the group’s attempts to link it to liberals, Klobuchar's bill is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy of Louisiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, John Thune of South Dakota and Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Cicilline’s bill has 20 Republican co-sponsors. 

Carl Szabo, vice president at NetChoice, tweeted on Monday that the ad was a “six-figure TV and digital” campaign to highlight the dangers of the measure that he said “would increase the government’s ability to pressure media outlets on editorial decisions.”

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said it would remove all news from its platforms if the measure passed.

“We will be forced to consider removing news from our platform altogether rather than submit to government-mandated negotiations that unfairly disregard any value we provide to news outlets through increased traffic and subscriptions,” Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, wrote on Twitter on Monday.

Stone said publishers and broadcasters choose to put their content in online platforms “because it benefits their bottom line — not the other way around.”

Public Knowledge, a free-speech advocacy group, said it joined 26 other groups representing public interest, civil society and others to oppose the measure in a Dec. 5 letter to Pelosi, Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy

The groups included the American Civil Liberties Union, Local Independent Online News, Center for Democracy and Technology among others. The signatories don't include any major news publishers or broadcasters. 

The measure would “create an ill-advised antitrust exemption for publishers and broadcasters,” the groups said in their letter.

The measure approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would direct tech and social media platforms “to negotiate for payments and to carry the content of any digital journalism provider that becomes part of a joint negotiation entity, regardless of how extreme their content,” the groups said in the letter.

“The JCPA would permit a digital journalism provider to bring a legal action against a covered platform to hold it liable for limiting the reach of content the platform owner finds offensive or contrary to its terms of service or community standards,” the letter said.

The bill would undermine content moderation principles and could lead to more hate speech, harassment and disinformation, the groups said.