The ground has shifted under the big-tech companies as the House Judiciary Committee continued its investigation into the anticompetitive activities of the dominant online platforms. The recent hearing, sixth in a series of bipartisan hearings launched last year by the Antitrust Subcommittee Chair David Cicilline, D-R.I., and then-Ranking Member Doug Collins, R-Ga., was the first time Congress has heard from the CEOs of the largest tech companies in the country: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. While many representatives grilled the executives on controversial and disconcerting activities that their companies engage in, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., emerged as a champion of independent and high-quality news journalism.
For far too long, the dominant online platforms have held news publishers in their grips, forcing them to accept imbalanced and vague terms while capturing the vast majority of user data and digital ad revenues and making it harder for publishers to deepen relationships with their readers. While the big tech companies have prospered — Google’s revenues were $162 billion in 2019 and Facebook raked in $70.7 billion — news publishers are struggling to stay afloat. According to a recent UNC study, between 2005 and 2020, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers disappeared, leaving too many communities as news deserts, and even more are at risk.
We are thankful, then, that congressional champions, such as Jayapal, are taking the anticompetitive behavior of these online platforms and the blight of journalism seriously. During the July 29 hearing, Jayapal engaged in a fiery exchange with Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet and Google. Noting the “deep urgency to protect independent journalism,” Jayapal drew attention to Google’s control of the digital-ad ecosystem, where Google is running the marketplace and dominates both the buy and the sell side.
As Jayapal stated, the situation allows Google to set the rates low when buying ad space from newspapers while selling high to small businesses who rely on advertising on Google’s platform. This hurts both advertisers and newspapers who rely on digital ad revenues in order to keep their communities informed. This is a clear conflict of interest that should not be allowed in any marketplace. Jayapal correctly noted that the situation resembles the stock market except without regulations that would prohibit insider trading. The lack of accountability and transparency exacerbates the situation and makes it more difficult to evaluate its market-distorting effect.
In response to Jayapal’s excellent questioning, Google could only offer vague platitudes. Pichai tried to highlight the $14 billion Google has reportedly paid to publishers and the company’s “deep commitment” to journalism, while noting that news is a “low margin business” for Google. All of these explanations ring hollow. If Google was serious about supporting journalism, it would take news publishers’ feedback and concerns seriously, engage in meaningful negotiations, and be more transparent about its pricing, policies and data.
There are multiple ways to improve the situation. The Antitrust Subcommittee’s investigation is a major step forward, especially when considered together with other investigations conducted by other authorities in the United States and around the world. But these investigations and their recommendations take time to complete and implement, all the while local newspapers are fighting for their survival. And while Google and the other big tech companies could step up and take meaningful action, they are unlikely to do so. We need more imminent fixes.
The tide is turning against the dominant online platforms. No longer do they have free rein to do as they please, strengthening their control of the online marketplace, while suffocating news publishers who invest every day in providing reliable and trustworthy news to keep their communities informed. It is lawmakers like Jayapal who take the issue seriously and acknowledge the need for Congress to take decisive action who give us hope about the sustainability of high-quality journalism in America.