Assemblyman Kim Youngshik proposed an amendment to the Act on the Promotion of Newspapers, Etc., under which internet news service providers would be required to pay for placing news article links based on search queries or user analysis. The legislative intent as per the proposer’s view is to have Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, among others, pay for news to improve the profitability of media companies. In reality, however, it would lead to contraction of the freedom of expression that has been enormously enlarged by the internet and algorithms that form the backbone of the right to know, resulting in threats to both the internet ecosystem and the media ecosystem.
Above all, the notion of paying for links to news itself is against the internet ecosystem. Setting in array the online locations of materials, i.e., URLs or IP addresses, does not constitute the ‘use’ of materials, hence no reason to pay. One would not pay famous restaurants whenever he/she tells other people where they are. Guiding users to ways to easily access materials is financially beneficial for the copyright holders. That is why website operators want to give out their website address widely for free. Deeming the act of telling people the online locations of materials as the use of that materials and requiring payment would mean that people would be reluctant to post links to news articles they liked on their Facebook pages or blogs. The key to the epoch-making success of the internet is the HTTP-based world wide web, where a gigantic amount of information is stored across countless devices and information is shared by exchanging the locations of each piece of information. The world wide web would not be sustainable if one has to pay the custodian of information whenever he/she tells people where good information is.
Having said that, Mr. Kim’s bill does not require all links be paid-for. The scope of paid-for links is limited to (1) subjects of recommendations based on search queries or user analysis algorithms (“recommendations”), more specifically, (2) links to news articles. However, searches and recommendations play important roles in the internet ecosystem. Searches bring users links to information they need, and recommendations give users links to information they are likely to be in need of. In the internet, where superabundance of information is not dissimilar to absence of information, users would waste a huge amount of time to find information without searches and recommendations. Without them, those who can draw huge workforce to dig out information will have advantages. On the information provider side, too, the absolute advantage will go to companies that crowd out competitors in terms of advertisement exposure. Searches and recommendations have equipped small and medium enterprises the power of information and promotion with which they can compete with large enterprises, hence ultimately ensure equal communication for all. Paid-for links will lead to the contraction of equality, the key to the epoch-making success of the internet.
Also, it is not convincing that links to news articles should be paid-for, while links to all other materials would remain free. For example, placing URLs to movie streaming pages would remain free, but one should pay for placing URLs to news articles under the proposed law. If media companies’ materials were of more worth protecting than other materials, this would owe to the fact that journalism is the most organized form of the staple of democracy – the freedom of expression and the right to know. However, news exist for news consumers, more so than arts exists for audience. For news consumers, paid-for links to news articles would mean that they will end up bearing the cost, or they would need to find URLs themselves. If, unlike audience seeking to watch movies, a voter should bear these costs or inconvenience of find out information about candidates, would this bill be justified despite its disabling impact on democracy?
For this reason, human rights organizations denounced Article 15 of the EU Directive on the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights, which the European Union passed for media promotion in 2019, as “link tax,” and the bill ended up being amended not to be applicable to links or short phrases. But Mr. Kim’s bill is applicable to all ‘mediation’ activities without exception, hence deemed “link tax” in its literal sense.
The bill proposed by Mr. Kim will damage the media ecosystem, too. There are five different ways in which platforms mediate media companies’ news in Korea (content affiliation, affiliated searches, newsstands unaffiliated general searches, and algorithm recommendations). Requiring that only those news articles paid for as in content affiliation be included in searches and recommendations while prohibiting the four other unpaid methods will lead to situations where negotiations are primarily done with a few well-established media companies, rather than thousands of media companies out there, and the unselected smaller media companies will die out.
If the bill requires negotiations be done with all media companies, small ones may still face risk for being excluded from searches or recommendations due to transaction costs. At the moment many smaller media companies, which are unable to sell their content to users or platforms, may enter the media market by being included in the results of unaffiliated searches, algorithm recommendations, or newsstands, but this will no longer be the case.
In addition, online news consumption in South Korea is primarily done through ‘content affiliation’ with local platforms, hence already paid-for. This is not similar to the cases in France or Australia where consumption was dominated by unaffiliated searches and algorithm recommendations on certain platforms and antitrust measures were essential. The only thing this bill would bring us is risk for smaller media companies being deprived of rights to ‘go viral’ by unaffiliated searches or algorithm recommendations and opportunities for the public to ‘encounter’ content from unknown media companies, all without accomplishing any public interest.
Sharing links to content is one of the core functions of the world wide web and a prerequisite for the weak to have voice. Regardless of how wide or narrow the scope of application will be, paid-for links will destroy freedom on the internet and the diversity of media. Open Net Korea opposes the paid-for news link act and urges the withdrawal of the bill.
May 3 2021
Open Net Korea
Contact: Open Net Korea Secretariat 02-581-1643, firstname.lastname@example.org