Congress and federal regulators must quickly strengthen oversight of giant digital platforms such as Facebook and Google.
While these companies provide many benefits, their market dominance and adverse effects have reached a point where government should intervene.
Their harms and monopolistic behaviors were well documented recently by competition authorities in the United Kingdom, which found Google and Facebook earned 80% of the UK’s digital advertising revenue last year.
Consumers suffer as a result of such concentration. By stifling ad competition, the UK regulators found, the companies drive up pricing. That leads to higher costs for goods and services, particularly hotels, flights, books and other products advertised heavily online.
British regulators called for a new agency to regulate competition in digital advertising.
That’s a useful template for U.S. authorities who have been scrutinizing digital giants but have yet to produce a comparable analysis or recommendations.
The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee is holding important hearings on this issue, including a grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders scheduled for July 27. It could release a report and proposals later this summer.
“We are trying to reassert our role as Congress because there hasn’t been the kind of enforcement there needs to be,” U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat on the subcommittee, told this editorial board.
In parallel, the Department of Justice launched an antitrust inquiry into digital platforms last year. It could begin a case against Google this summer, according to the Wall Street Journal. It also reported that state attorneys general could file suit against the company, perhaps in the fall.
Enforcement is welcome, but broader regulation is still necessary.
The House committee should offer ways to strengthen and update antitrust laws to rein in digital gatekeepers. It should also address how Google and Facebook control the flow of advertising dollars and access to news content, without compensating news organizations at fair market rates.
“In any game you need a referee,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former DOJ antitrust chief counsel advocating for creation of a new digital market regulator, similar to the U.K. proposal.
The Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission have whistles. But the agencies are politicized and have done little to check mergers and business practices that increased platforms’ dominance and weakened consumer choice and privacy.
Experts at a dedicated, digital regulator could monitor and report on business practices and participate in merger reviews.
Meanwhile, the triple storm of a pandemic, recession and election vulnerable to misinformation campaigns is highlighting the need for a sustainable diversity of media.
Americans need more information and local reporting during crises and elections.
Yet platforms’ dominance of the ad market is snuffing out much of the independent journalism in the United States. Newspaper circulation in 2018 fell to the lowest level since 1940, after a decade in which newspaper advertising fell 62%, according to Pew Research.
During that decade, Facebook and Google evolved from pseudo neutral platforms into dominant information arbiters.
Social-media sites are now news sources for more than half of Americans. Yet they are failing to live up to this responsibility by not following rules that apply to traditional news organizations, significantly investing in reporting or fairly compensating publishers for content.
They make billions hoovering news content and advertising as much of the country is now left with little to no local news reporting to inform voters, speak truth to power and build shared community knowledge.
These giants also allow misinformation to proliferate on their sites and poison public discourse, in part by taking advantage of outdated liability protections written to help early web ventures.
Their unchecked power and weak curation were exploited by Russia in an information warfare campaign attacking U.S. democracy and sowing division during the 2016 election. It’s expected to be happening again this year.
As documented by the DOJ’s Mueller investigation, Russia used social-media accounts and advertising to undermine the U.S. electoral system starting in 2014. In 2016, it shifted to a targeted operation favoring presidential candidate Donald Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton.
Battling misinformation and bias will continue to be a challenge. Market pressure to improve, as applied recently by major brands pulling Facebook ads, will help.
Another remedy is to improve education, particularly civics, so Americans are better prepared to defend themselves against political manipulation.
Regulators must also bring more oversight, transparency, interoperability and user control of personal information to digital platforms. Promising suggestions are being made by regulators abroad, and by U.S. experts and public-interest organizations.
More assertive antitrust enforcement, to nurture competition in the digital marketplace, must be the foundation of this work.
That would give advertisers — mostly small businesses — and news consumers more choices and agency.
Competition would foster innovation and improvement at the regulated companies. It would also strengthen society and democracy, by helping sustain local news organizations that invest in original reporting and accountability journalism.
It’s past time to curb digital giants’ excessive power in the U.S.