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Gathering news, not misinformation

Big Tech and social media have become our atlases, our dictionaries, our singles bars, our encyclopedias, our shopping carts, our storm warnings. The means to digitally and effortlessly connect with goods, services, information and fellow humans has become the pearl of great price that can entice the person who finds it to give up on what he had before.

Many people have done so, with most Americans now getting what serves as their access to news from Facebook and Google.

This week, alarms sounded once again over the social dangers of surrendering to the dominance of Google, Facebook and other digital platforms. The U.S. surgeon general warned about the dangers created by sowers of health misinformation, and two congressmen announced a renewed effort to give media outlets a fighting chance against the larcenous business model of Big Tech.

Digital media is just so darn appealing. For a long time it was free, and much still is. Its convenience gets users out of having to "go look something up," a term hardly spoken anymore. Interactivity mimics actual conversational exchange, for a while. And if all that starts to bore, there is a churn of content taken from a variety of sources. What doesn't sync in this system is that much of that material was published, researched, reported, written, photographed and/or videographed by people doing their jobs and not getting paid by Big Tech for its use.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, joined his colleague David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, to announce reintroduction of a bill that would give smaller producers of online news content a chance to fight back as an industry.

Newsgathering operations — typically legacy newspapers and broadcasters now also publishing online — would get a 48-month period of immunity from prosecution for violating anti-trust laws if they banded together to negotiate terms under which Google and others would pay for use of their work products.

Courtney and Cicilline were joined by then-Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, in first proposing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in 2019. There is also a bipartisan Senate version of the bill.

The elected officials are alarmed at the financial harm done to local and regional news outlets because Google et al swipe their content without compensation and then make money by being the go-to hub for users. Users bring advertisers. Advertisers go where the users cluster. Increasingly, that is not on the sites that initially publish the news.

In effect, the terms of the act would acknowledge that giant media have changed the game by taking what is not theirs. Their aggregating and global outreach are already engrained in societies rich and poor, however — to "google" is a verb. There would be much to lose by attempting to hobble Big Tech. What is needed instead is marketplace competition that is not a laughable contest.

Rather than tinker with existing anti-trust laws (which the giants could use to fight  smaller companies that join forces), the bill proposes the "safe harbor" period in which anti-trust provisions would not be pursued against an industrywide challenge from the news outlets. Coordination by publishers would have to benefit the entire industry, be necessary for negotiating purposes, and directly relate to "the quality, accuracy, attribution or branding, or interoperability of news."

Accuracy was the major concern of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who revealed in a press briefing Thursday that he has lost 10 members of his family to Covid-19, some in India and some in the United States. He blames vaccine hesitancy for many unnecessary deaths, and he blames the hesitancy on "health misinformation." The surgeon general called out tech and social media companies for not doing enough to stop the spread of such misinformation, which he termed "an urgent threat to public health."

When the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act was first introduced, no one had ever heard of Covid-19. The purpose of the bill was and remains to give news publishers a free market way to be paid for the news they gather. If it is enacted, the public would benefit from the economic stability of news organizations that do their reporting, edit and fact-check their findings, and give the news local and global context. That is trustworthy news. That is the way to fight dangerous misinformation.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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