Web’s Inventor Says News Media Bargaining Code Could Break The Internet. He’s Right — But There’s A Fix

Authored by Tama

Professor of Internet
Studies, Curtin University

The inventor of the
World Wide Web, Tim
, has raised
that Australia’s proposed News Media and
Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code could
fundamentally break the internet as we know it.

concerns are valid. However, they could be addressed through
minor changes to the proposed code.

How could the
code break the web?

The news media bargaining code
aims to level the playing field between media companies and
online giants. It would do this by forcing Facebook and
Google to pay Australian news businesses for content linked
to, or featured, on their platforms.

In a submission
to the Senate inquiry about the code, Berners-Lee

Specifically, I am concerned
that the Code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the
web by requiring payment for linking between certain content
online. […] The ability to link freely — meaning without
limitations regarding the content of the linked site and
without monetary fees — is fundamental to how the web

Currently, one of the most
basic underlying principles of the web is there is no cost
involved in creating a hypertext link (or simply a
“link”) to any other page or object online.

Berners-Lee first devised the World Wide Web in 1989, he
effectively gave
the idea and associated software for free, to
ensure nobody would or could charge for using its

He argues the news media bargaining code
could set a legal precedent allowing someone to charge for
linking, which would let the genie out of the bottle — and
plenty more attempts to charge for linking to content would

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If the precedent were set that people could be
charged for simply linking to content online, it’s
possible the underlying principle of linking would be

As a result, there would likely be many
attempts by both legitimate companies and scammers to charge
users for what is currently free.

While supporting the
“right of publishers and content creators to be properly
rewarded for their work”, Berners-Lee asks the code be
amended to maintain the principle of allowing free linking
between content.

Google and Facebook don’t just
link to content

Part of the issue here is Google and
Facebook don’t just collect a list of interesting links to
news content. Rather the way they find, sort, curate and
present news content adds value for their users.

don’t just link to news content, they reframe it. It is
often in that reframing that advertisements appear, and this
is where these platforms make money.

For example, this
will take you to the original 1989 proposal for the
World Wide Web. Right now, anyone can create such a link to
any other page or object on the web, without having to pay
anyone else.

But what Facebook and Google do in
curating news content is fundamentally different. They
create compelling
, usually by offering the headline of a news
article, sometimes the first few lines, and often the first
image extracted.

For instance, here is a preview
Google generates when someone searches for Tim
Berners-Lee’s Web proposal:

what Google returns is more of a media-rich, detailed
preview than a simple link. For Google’s users, this is a
much more meaningful preview of the content and better
enables them to decide whether they’ll click through to
see more.

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Another huge challenge for media businesses
is that increasing numbers of users are taking headlines and
previews at face value, without necessarily reading the

This can obviously decrease revenue for news
providers, as well as perpetuate misinformation. Indeed,
it’s one of the reasons Twitter began asking users to
actually read
content before retweeting it

A fairly compelling
argument, then, is that Google and Facebook add value for
consumers via the reframing, curating and previewing of
content — not just by linking to it.

Can the code
be fixed?

Currently in
the code
, the section concerning how platforms are
“Making content available” lists three ways content is

  1. content is reproduced on the
  2. content is linked to
  3. an extract or
    preview is made available.

Similar terms are
used to detail how users might interact with

we accept most of the additional value platforms provide to
their users is in curating and providing previews of
content, then deleting the second element (which just
specifies linking to content) would fix Berners-Lee’s

It would ensure the use of links alone
can’t be monetised, as has always been true on the web.
Platforms would still need to pay when they present users
with extracts or previews of articles, but not when they
only link to it.

Since basic links are not the
bread and butter of big platforms, this change wouldn’t
fundamentally alter the purpose or principle of creating a
more level playing field for news businesses and

In its current form, the News Media and
Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code could put the
underlying principles of the world wide web in jeopardy. Tim
Berners-Lee is right to raise this point.

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But a
relatively small tweak to the code would prevent this, It
would allow us to focus more on where big platforms actually
provide value for users, and where the clearest
justification lies in asking them to pay for news

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