For some reason US software giant Microsoft has decided the European press needs its help in getting Google and Facebook to pay for news they link to.

Europe’s press publishers, as represented by the European Publishers Council, News Media Europe, ENPA, and EMMA, have brought in their own US tech giant ringer to help them stand up to Google and Facebook. They want to have a similar system of forcing internet companies to pay news media for any content they link to, as is being attempted in Australia to mixed effect.

While Facebook has told Australia to shove it, Google seems to have caved, presumably because it values the ability to link to news content more highly than Facebook does. The only discernible reason for the two of them being grouped together in this context seems to be that they are disproportionately responsible for the catastrophic decline in advertising revenues experienced by the news media in the past couple of decades.

So the news media is trying its hand at a spot of B2B socialism, in which it calls upon the state to redistribute wealth from the bourgeois internet platforms to the journalistic proletariat. If anywhere would be receptive to this kind of top-down tinkering in the free market it would be the European Union, so you can see why so much attention is being given to that region in this context.

Why Microsoft has decided to get involved, however, is less obvious. The company would have us believe it’s just really into quality journalism and can’t stand to see poor publishers get such short shrift at the hands of moustache-twirling, Silicon Valley swine. The FT, which isn’t involved, characterises the move as ‘one of its most brazen yet to align with the press industry, exploit the difficulties of its Silicon Valley rivals and promote its own search engine Bing as a copyright-friendly alternative for news.’

“Access to fresh, broad and deep press coverage is critical to the success of our democracies,” said Casper Klynge of Microsoft. “Our commitment to preserving and promoting journalism isn’t new. In October 2020, we launched a new initiative to invest in and support local media and, through Microsoft News, we have been sharing a large portion of revenue with press publishers. This initiative is a logical next step.”

“We welcome Microsoft’s recognition of the value that our content brings to the core businesses of search engines and social networks because this is where Google and Facebook generate the vast majority of their revenues,” said Christian Van Thillo, Chairman of the European Publishers Council. “It is crucial that our regulators recognise this key point, and don’t get misled into thinking that side deals on the basis of a stand-alone product are the same thing, because they are not at all and undermine the neighbouring rights that we have been granted. All publishers should get an agreement – no one should be left out”.

“The experiences in France and Australia have shown us that there’s a real need for a binding instrument to address inherent imbalances in bargaining power with gatekeepers, which undermine the potential of Europe’s press sector,” said Fernando de Yarza, President of News Media Europe. “We look forward to working with Microsoft and others on a solution that allows for a healthy and diverse online news media ecosystem”.

“Independent journalism is vital to the social cohesion that is essential for democracy,” said Jean-Pierre de Kerraoul, President of ENPA. “But the internet and social media have not been kind to the free press with most outlets hit hard. A fully functioning and competitive ecosystem will strengthen media pluralism and will ultimately strengthen democratic discourse. Democracy relies on a free press to make it through difficult times. Any legislative proposal that strengthens democracy and supports a free press should be promoted by the technology industry, which is a product of the very same freedoms and values.”

“The DMA or other binding regulation should entail a specific obligation for the gatekeepers to grant all legal publications and offerings non-discriminatory access and fair terms and conditions to their services,” said Xavier Bouckaert, President of EMMA. “This must include an obligation for market dominant platforms to enter into negotiations with all rightsholders of the Publishers’ right and offer fair payment for their content. We therefore welcome today’s commitment, as it covers newspaper and magazine publishers alike.”

It’s impossible to know what Microsoft’s underlying motives are, but it has a healthy appetite for messing with its competitors via proxies. Not only does Microsoft want to compete with Google on search and browsers, they also go toe-to-toe in the cloud space. So we’re touched by Microsoft’s sudden concern for news media, we’re inclined to go with the FT’s take on this.

Maybe its involvement in the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, also announced today, is an additional factor. The stated aim of the coalition is ‘to address the prevalence of disinformation, misinformation and online content fraud through developing technical standards for certifying the source and history or provenance of media content.’

At first glance this appears to be yet another fact-checking initiative, but it seems to be more of an open-source digital fingerprint that can be used to prove an image or whatever is legit and hasn’t been manipulated. Adobe, Arm, BBC, Intel, and Truepic are the other founding members and the Linux Foundation seems to be involved too.

“There’s a critical need to address widespread deception in online content — now supercharged by advances in AI and graphics and diffused rapidly via the internet,” said Eric Horvitz, Microsoft Chief Scientific Officer. “Our imperative as researchers and technologists is to create and refine technical and sociotechnical approaches to this grand challenge of our time. We’re excited about methods for certifying the origin and provenance of online content. It’s an honour to work alongside Adobe, BBC and other C2PA members to take this critical work to the next step.”

While there seems to be value in both projects, it’s hard to attribute altruistic motives to any company, let alone one of the US tech giants. If publishers, rights holders and the general public happen to benefit from either of them that will merely be a coincidental by-product of Microsoft pursuing its own interests, as it always has with ruthless efficiency.




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