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What the new deals with Facebook and Google are about is the use of actual newspaper content, even whole articles, in packages the publishers put together themselves, on dedicated services hosted by the platforms.Richard Drew/The Associated Press

There’s just no pleasing some people. For months – no, years – the Canadian newspaper industry has been clamouring, both corporately and, with escalating shamelessness, in its own news pages, for Facebook and Google to “pay for content.”

Or rather, for FacebookGoogle to pay for the content they “use,” or “take” or even “steal,” the alleged foundation of their fabulous wealth. So purple-faced were the suits on the subject, you could almost believe the outrage was sincere.

What has been the response, then, to the news that Facebook and Google have each signed deals with Canadian publishers for content – a 14-publisher agreement with Facebook announced in May, followed by a similar deal with eight publishers, including The Globe and Mail, unveiled last month? More outrage.

What’s needed is an “industry-wide solution,” fumed the chairman of Postmedia, Andrew MacLeod, whose organization was a part of neither deal – by which he meant legislation imposed upon the platforms, and presumably the publishers, forcing the former to negotiate with the latter.

Indeed, Mr. MacLeod seemed as exercised by those publishers who, deserting their industry brethren (i.e. Postmedia), had signed side deals with FacebookGoogle as he was with the alleged content thieves themselves.

“I respect the right of all companies to be doing what’s in their self-interest,” he seethed, “and I understand the financial pressure that some players feel and the urgency they feel relative to creating more certainty in their financial environment” – I feel a but coming on – “but I think that speaks to the need for the government to enact the promised legislation.”

His fellow suit, Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor, the country’s largest journalists’ union, was as usual blunter. “They better get it done,” he mused, menacingly, noting there was an election coming. He accused the breakaway publishers of “panicking,” and thus undermining the kind of “solidarity” that “forces governments to react quickly.”

The publishers’ union, meanwhile – more formally known as News Media Canada – was busy denying there had been any breach. “Canada’s news publishers remain united,” the organization’s president and chairman insisted, in an op-ed published in virtually every newspaper in the country (though not The Globe and Mail) late last month – “in the belief that all federal political party platforms should support a sustainable news ecosystem in Canada.”

Hear that, all federal political parties, just days before a potential election call? “That’s a nice little campaign you got there – pity if anything should happen to it.”

And how exactly should they “support a sustainable news ecosystem,” in order to avoid any unpleasant accidents in the coverage they receive? “We firmly believe the best way to do that is to allow us to work together in a collective bargaining unit to negotiate competitive terms for the use of our content and intellectual property.”

Which at least has the virtue of revealing what this is all about – what it has always been about. It never was about FacebookGoogle “stealing” our content, least of all by linking to it: the preposterous accusation that, by sending millions of readers our way every day, free of charge, often via links posted by the newspapers themselves, the platforms were somehow stealing our content, our readers, or our advertising revenues – which would be obvious nonsense even if they sold ads against these links, which they don’t.

Rather, it is about tilting the negotiating table in our favour. It’s about forcing them to pay more than they would willingly negotiate. A shakedown, in other words – or in other other words, a bailout, like the one(s) the industry previously extracted from the government, only this time underwritten by the platforms, rather than the taxpayer.

But wait a minute – isn’t the sudden willingness of FacebookGoogle to pay for content a tacit admission that they weren’t paying for it before?

No, because we’re not talking about the same thing.

What publishers were demanding before – what some are still demanding – is to be paid for links, or rather for the government to make FacebookGoogle pay us for links: the headlines, sometimes accompanied by short snippets of text, that are a feature of both platforms. That’s the “content” the newspapers, and more egregiously newspaper reporters, have in mind when they refer to the platforms’ alleged refusal to “pay for content.”

What these new deals are about is something quite different: the use of actual newspaper content, even whole articles, in packages the publishers put together themselves, on dedicated services hosted by the platforms. Facebook’s is called Facebook News; Google’s is Google News Showcase.

It’s right and proper that the platforms should pay the newspapers for genuine content, and it’s right and proper that the fee for this, like that of any good or service, should be negotiated between the two parties. It may even be right and proper that the newspapers be allowed to bargain collectively, notwithstanding the competition laws, as a counterbalance to the platforms’ monopoly, or at least monopolish, power – the Australian model, as it’s called, after legislation passed there earlier this year – though why this principle should apply to FacebookGoogle, and not to Apple or Microsoft, which have similar news services, is a question worth asking.

But if publishers should be allowed to bargain collectively, they should also be allowed to bargain separately: there’s a difference, after all, between a union and a closed shop. Whereas the logic of the Postmedia/Unifor/News Media Canada position is that all of the newspapers should be compelled to bargain together – to thwart the platforms’ “divide and conquer” strategy – and that FacebookGoogle should be compelled to negotiate with them.

But what does this mean? If the obligation were only to negotiate, FacebookGoogle would have no incentive to reach a deal: They could simply pretend to negotiate until the talks collapsed, then bargain separately with each publisher, as they are now doing. If, on the other hand, they were obliged to reach an agreement – that is, to accept what the newspapers offer, or an arbitrator dictates – then the negotiations themselves are a sham, cover for what is essentially a government-ordered transfer from the platforms to the publishers.

Everything old is new again. Stripped of its endless, shifting rationalizations, the newspapers’ position remains the same as ever: Facebook and Google have a lot of money. Make them give us some.

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