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Rep. Cicilline: Big Tech Power Could Spell Local News Extinction

Rep. David Cicilline
Rep. David Cicilline says journalism faces extinction-level event (Image credit: N/A)

WASHINGTON—Facebook and Google's market power, especially over digital advertising, has translated to a potential "extinction level event" for local news operations, broadcast, online and print.

That was the underlying message of House Antitrust Subcommittee chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.) at a hearing Friday (March 12) on “Saving a Free and Diverse Press.”

Cicilline said his bill to give news content producers an antitrust exemption to negotiate collectively with the largest platforms (the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA) was not a substitute for structural remedies to address the market power of a Google or Facebook, but was a short term solution to save trustworthy journalism before is it gone forever.

A Senate version of the bill has been introduced by Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Cicilline painted a dark portrait of local news, saying it was in free fall, in part because of the gatekeeper power of tech platforms. He called that a crisis in journalism that was also a crisis in democracy, and in a time of pandemic when local news is more important than ever.

Of Big Tech, Cicilline said that those gatekeepers can distort the flow of information with the a single change to an algorithm or ad option. With that power, he said Google and Facebook have captured nearly all the digital ad growth in recent years. 

He said local journalism is on life support, and to do nothing was not an option.

Ranking Subcommittee Member Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who co-sponsored the bill, said he was concerned about Big Tech's role in "cancel culture" suppression of conservative speech.

Buck said Congress sat idly by as Big Tech platforms became monopolies but it can't let them become arbiters of truth. He called them "digital kings' that need dethroning and have precisely the kind of power that antitrust laws were meant to address.

Emily Barr, National Association of Broadcasters TV Board chair and Broadcasting & Cable's 2020 Broadcaster of the year, testified at the hearing on the impact of Big Tech on her industry. 

She said their market power undercuts the online ad model for local broadcast news in two ways: 1) Their gatekeeper role prevents stations from generating traffic "independent of their services" and their "take it or leave it" terms of service "leave local broadcasters with a below-market sliver of the advertising revenues that are derived through their products."

She said quality journalism has to compete with "click bait" that is often favored by platform algorithms, that siphon off ad dollars from that quality news product.

In his testimony, David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, said Google and Facebook regulate the news media through their dominance. He said hope for a better journalism future is not a strategy, and the current path will lead to the ultimate destruction of quality news. He said publishers need the collective action that Cicciline's bill will provide, but added that may not be enough.

Google did not have a witness at the hearing, but did send a statement that included a line that sounded pretty "take it or leave it." It said: "Every news organization can choose whether they want to be in Google Search and Google News," adding that "most do because it results in valuable free traffic."

But it also said for those who do choose to be in Google search, they have created Google News Showcase, "powered by a $1 billion investment in news organizations." It said that more than 500 publications are part of the showcase, with more being added. It said the company was "committed to finding new ways to continue supporting the news industry."

"Over the past 20 years, we’ve collaborated closely with the news industry and provided billions of dollars to support the creation of quality journalism in the digital age," the tech giant said. "Through both our services and our direct funding of news organizations, Google is one of the world’s biggest financial supporters of journalism."