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Meta Threatens to Block News Content in California, Angering Press Freedom Advocates

FILE - Attendees visit the Meta booth at a conference in San Francisco, California, March 22, 2023.

Meta on Wednesday threatened to block all news articles on Facebook and Instagram in California if state lawmakers move forward with a bill that would tax the tech company for news content.

The California Journalism Preservation Act would tax the advertising profits that platforms like Meta and Google make from distributing news articles. About 70% of the money collected would then go to support newsrooms around the state.

Meta has warned it will pull news links from Facebook and Instagram entirely if the bill is passed.

"If the Journalism Preservation Act passes, we will be forced to remove news from Facebook and Instagram, rather than pay into a slush fund that primarily benefits big, out-of-state media companies under the guise of aiding California publishers," Meta spokesperson Andy Stone said in a statement on Wednesday.

Katie Harbath, chief executive at the tech policy firm Anchor Change and a former director of public policy at Facebook, said this latest threat from Meta is "following a pattern."

Meta previously pulled news from Facebook in 2021 in response to an Australian law that forced the platform to pay for news content. Meta reversed the ban a few days later once the government agreed to change elements of the law.

Tech giants are also threatening to pull news content in Canada if a similar measure is enacted there.

"This all feels like it's sort of the dance that the platforms and regulators and the news organizations go through when these types of bills pop up," Harbath added.

Media freedom groups see these sorts of threats as a danger to press freedom.

"Meta's blackmail threats when confronted with the possibility of having to compensate news organizations for using their content have become all too common," said Vincent Berthier, the head of the tech desk at Reporters Without Borders.

"Being one of the leading platforms means having the responsibility to defend everyone's right to access information, not having the power to cut off people's access to journalism if legislators don't bend to its will," he told VOA in a statement Thursday.

"Meta should stop trying to blackmail elected leaders and instead focus on showing that the company is compatible with democratic principles," Berthier added.

Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, previously condemned Meta's threat to block news content in Canada, saying in a March statement that the ultimatum "directly threatens the survival of Canadian media and, at the same time, access to news and information, one of the pillars of democracy."

"It is unacceptable to threaten journalism with banishment," Berthier said in the statement. "Meta should seek to show that it is able to play a positive role in the fight against disinformation and for access to pluralistic information, rather than trying to influence public policies that might jeopardize its economic interests."

In a statement Wednesday, the California Broadcasters Association, California News Publishers Association and News/Media Alliance criticized Meta's latest ultimatum.

"Meta's threat to take down news is undemocratic and unbecoming," the statement said. "We have seen this in their playbook before and they have been publicly admonished in other countries for this behavior."

The California bill is an attempt to support a news industry that has been floundering for years. Between 2008 and 2020, about 30,000 journalism jobs disappeared, according to the Pew Research Center, marking a 26% drop in newsroom employment.

"As news consumption has moved online, community news outlets have been downsized and closing at an alarming rate," the California bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, said at a hearing on the bill in May.

"Every day, journalism plays an essential role in California and in local communities, and the ability of local news organizations to continue to provide the public with critical information about their communities and enabling publishers to receive fair market value for their content that is used by others will preserve and ensure the sustainability of local and diverse news outlets," the bill says.

The Australian law generated nearly $150 million for news organizations, Columbia University's Bill Grueskin found.

But Harbath said she's skeptical that the California bill will be enough to help the news industry.

"I don't know that these bills are going to necessarily achieve what people think they're going to achieve," she said. "I just don't know if they're really going to get as much money as they actually need by doing this."

It's important "to think creatively going forward about what these business models should look like," Harbath added.