House probes Big Tech’s power over the news
Congress held the first hearing this week in its blockbuster antitrust inquiry into Big Tech companies, with news media leaders describing Facebook and Google as existential threats to their industry. “The marketplace for news is broken,” said David Pitofsky, general counsel for News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. Pitofsky testified that Facebook’s News Feed and Google News are “free riding,” grossing billions from ads tied to news without paying to report it. The News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 news organizations, said publishers lose more money to these platforms as they become more dependent on them. “These giants stand as a bottleneck,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), “between consumers and the producers of news content,” which he called “a classic antitrust problem.”
The House Judiciary Committee’s inquiry, planned to continue for the next 18 months, is led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.). Cicilline said the news industry has hemorrhaged jobs as ad revenue dropped from $49 billion in 2006 to $15.6 billion in 2017; 2,900 reporters and other news staff lost their jobs this year, many at regional newspapers such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He and Collins have proposed a bill exempting news organizations from price-fixing rules, letting them negotiate together for greater compensation from digital platforms. As the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission prepare probes of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple (see Technology), a bipartisan consensus is forming to check them. “Obviously, there is something going on in terms of monopoly,” said President Trump.
What the columnists said
The bipartisanship on this issue is “startling,” said Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post. Lawmakers are coming together to try to save “the very local newspapers that hold elected officials accountable.” Such outlets are in dire straits after Google and Facebook spent years repackaging their content and sucking up ad revenue. Silicon Valley claims that a four-year exemption allowing publishers to collectively bargain would be legalized “collusion.” In fact, “it’s essential”—especially for local outlets that help us “make sense of the world with shared facts.”
That’s “misguided on several levels,” said Jack Shafer in Politico.com. One media sector doesn’t deserve “special competitive privileges.” Newspapers’ demise is “overstated” anyway, but to the extent consumers are “flocking elsewhere for news and advertising, it’s not the business of Congress to steer them back.” Google and Facebook aren’t “parasites” for helping millions of readers find news, said Jordan Weissmann in Slate.com. Google doesn’t even run ads against its Google News app. Yet the News Media Alliance claims Google generates $4.7 billion in revenue from news searches alone. That math is “incredibly flimsy.”
“Hobbling” tech giants isn’t the goal of these hearings, said Gerald Seib in The Wall Street Journal, and neither party wants to strip American companies of their dominance over Chinese rivals. Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, is right to say, “We don’t want a sledgehammer. We need a scalpel.” Still, the debate is over “tactics and degree,” not the need for reform. ■