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[Publisher’s Note]

A Digital Coup

"Zuckerberg fancies himself the pharaoh of the Web. He uses it to act beyond all regulatory limits, in defiance of national borders and democratic principles."
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on September 5, 2023. Translated from the French by Elettra Pauletto.

In the early morning of June 23, the supranational company Meta (formerly Facebook) launched a digital coup against Canada, an ostensibly sovereign nation, consisting—as many Canadians but few Americans now know—of a pre-emptive strike launched by Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook. Its aim, clearly, was to intimidate Ottawa’s parliament and punish it for having dared to pass a law—C18, which was designed to promote fairness between the media and online platforms–that could eventually put an end to the systematic theft of the work of journalists and publishers whom Meta is currently outright robbing.

With another coup on August 3, using even harsher methods, this vengeful extortion campaign blocked public access to all Canadian and global media publications through Facebook and Instagram. Sharing ad revenues with those who deserve them—as law C-18 stipulates—is not part of the Meta strongman’s master plan. 

Mark Zuckerberg, who rose in fame and fortune alongside Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt of Google, has become something more than a spoiled billionaire. Boosted by the adulation of heads of state around the world (who are sometimes indebted to him for political favors and financial donations), Zuckerberg fancies himself the pharaoh of the Web. He uses it to act beyond all regulatory limits, in defiance of national borders and democratic principles. He bases his greedy actions on his “principle” regarding what is free of charge—meaning the work provided for free to Facebook and Google is sold to advertising companies without sharing profits or compensating those who did the work—even in the face of what journalists and editors write, publish, and broadcast, all of which, by objective principle, and by legal right, belongs to them.  

Each word and idea poured into this digital colossus carries a value from which Facebook and Google draw a profit. Each click on the computer, laptop, or tablet, each page view (even when the page is shortened or obstructed by a paywall) brings revenue. I realize this amounts to only about a few cents a click, but billions of clicks of cents add up to a lot of dough. Dough that used to fund the work of print, television, and radio journalists with ad pages and thus revenue. 

It’s impossible for old-school media companies to effectively compete with a digital machine that sells its “product” to advertisers at low prices, all while being subsidized for an editorial product paid for and created by traditional media. “One can’t help but admire Google’s business model,” said Terry Kroeger, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway’s media group, in 2019. “They have close to zero content-creation costs, but they […] sell the lion’s share of the advertising.”

These are the consequences of the digital age that weigh on journalism, and on democracy, which itself relies on journalism. In the United States, newsrooms have shrunk by more than 97,000 employees since 2008. Since 2005, 2,500 newspapers — one quarter of them — have gone out of business. According to the Medill Journalism School, 70 million Americans live in more than 200 counties that no longer have a local paper. The situation is not much different in Canada, which now has 2,765 fewer journalists than it had in 2006. Another striking figure, provided by Cecil Rosner of the University of Winnipeg, is that in 1991 one in two communications professionals was a journalist; today, that figure is one in fourteen. 

How did we get here? Part of the blame falls on traditional media. Blinded by the Internet dream of an ultra-low cost per thousand and an almost unlimited audience of English speakers, the ad salesmen who dominated American media never imagined a Facebook that would be based on the free writing of three billion users, all with very little overhead. The same goes for Google, which can dominate Internet searches and target as many tiny, niche ad markets as it wants; and YouTube (a subsidiary of Google), which is capable of retrieving and airing a huge number of programs for free.

Instead of protecting their intellectual and creative assets with electronic barriers, large sectors of the so-called traditional media did the total opposite by adopting the free model. These media companies were encouraged, and comforted, by a slogan appropriated and twisted by the pseudo-intellectual Alan Rusbridger, then editor of the Guardian, according to which “information wants to be free,” as if information had a soul. The Guardian, in 2022, lost 21 million pounds and the newspaper now begs donations from its readers with each click they make on its site. But Rusbridger, who left the paper in 2015, is no dummy when it comes to his own business model. Since 2021 he has been getting paid to dispense his sound advice to Facebook’s “oversight board.”

The damage created by this digital-dominated system is even spreading to such brave dissidents as Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical French weekly, which, in the face of the pandemic, released its first virtual edition in March 2020. It may mock Google, but it’s unable to function without the internet, so the fact remains that even this firmly paywalled paper depends on it. In October 2019, Le Canard satirized the institutional voice of this all-powerful company and its contempt for the press: “In ten years, we have stolen half of their advertising revenue…Now you want Google to pay you for that?” The imaginary response: “Blackmail! No quotes means zero clicks to your website, which will collapse. Oh yes, guys, we own you. If you still manage to scrape together an audience on the net, that’s thanks to us.”

My dear readers, I invite you to respond in the same way, with a boycott of Facebook followed by a Google detox. It’ll do you good.

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