from the say-no-to-link-taxes dept
How many times have you shared a link today? How many times have you used a search engine to look for information? We use links and snippets to gain and share information so often that we don’t even think about it. It’s an essential component of the internet, so intrinsic that an internet without links simply doesn’t work. For this reason, it’s alarming that certain members of Congress are pushing “link tax” proposals, like the Journalism Competition Preservation Act (JCPA), that will monetize links in a way that changes how this essential internet infrastructure works.
The JCPA would permit news sites to band together and “negotiate” with platforms like Google and Facebook — presumably to withhold their content via link and snippets (also known as the short previews of the articles) until the platforms have paid up. Presumably, the intent of this proposal is to shift the balance of power away from big tech platforms and back to news publishers. This goal is laudable because, with the rise of Big Tech, the loss of sources for local news and information is certainly concerning. However, the JCPA is irredeemably flawed legislation that will destroy public access to information and create loopholes to alter how copyright works in our country – all while failing to achieve its stated goal of “saving” the news industry and only making problems worse for small publishers and libraries, whose goals of access to information are sometimes in conflict with large media conglomerates.
Libraries have been one of the primary victims of the ever-expansion of copyright, since copyright law limits the ability of patrons to interact with intellectual property as they wish. The increasing scope of copyright, combined with the ease with which something falls under copyright protection, has resulted in a decrease in the availability of free information. Expansive copyright nearly always equals closed intellectual property systems, which in turn limits libraries’ ability to provide equitable access to information for all. In this case, a link tax would specifically harm libraries because links cannot be copyrighted. A link and snippet tax would be the equivalent of adding a tax to every book you check out from a library.
Research shows that access to accurate, high-quality local news is important to community health, and libraries have long-standing systems in place that increase the public’s access to information. Costly and restrictive “link taxes” like the JCPA will break these systems and penalize the public institutions that should be focused on providing high quality information resources to their communities. As trained information professionals, librarians are uniquely suited to provide access to and evaluation of the news for their communities – this proposal would take that discretion out of the hands of libraries and public institutions and place it in the hands of corporations and media conglomerates.
The relationship between libraries and publishers, including news organizations, has a long historical precedent, and libraries and publishers should work together to create a more equitable and profitable news landscape. Even so, we recognize that publishers are well within their rights to place content behind subscriptions and passwords – a route that at least 69% of media outlets have taken with great success. However, paywalls and licenses should not be not the only route for publishers moving forward, and libraries can help pave that future. A recent collaboration between Library Futures, New York’s Albany Public Library, and Hearken proved that it is indeed possible to support communities through citizen participation in the news process. In coordination with news partners and libraries, we demonstrated an increase in subscriptions and reporting power as well as built invaluable connections. With the majority of consumers accessing news through their smartphones or social media, the link to content is inviolable—as well as critical—for the publishers to reach consumers, for consumers to access the information, and for libraries to provide access to consumers.
Small and medium publishers raised concerns about how a link tax would disproportionately hurt smaller news publishers and local news outlets who can’t afford to lose any more traffic. There are also many news sites, like ProPublica, Global Voices, The Conversation, El Diario and Al Jazeera, that purposely use Creative Commons licensing to make their articles more available to the public. These news outlets want to be readily accessible to the public and to other news outlets. As organizations and institutions committed to open access to information, libraries are invested in the future of nonprofit, openly licensed and public news sources. A link tax would jeopardize these sources, which provide crucial reporting and opinion for patrons.
American policymakers should not export bad ideas from foreign countries at the expense of publishers’ and libraries’ ability to provide high-quality news and information to American readers.They should instead carefully consider how legislation like the JCPA could open up a new loophole that allows news publishers to stop links to their materials which will only restrict access to information. For libraries and other public institutions dedicated to knowledge and education, this issue is of grave concern to our patrons, to the public, and to the continued free flow of information.
Jennie Rose Halperin is the Executive Director of Library Futures, and Juliya Ziskina is a policy fellow with Library Futures.