House bill would help media companies bargain with Facebook and Google

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Photos: Reuters

WASHINGTON — A House panel held its first hearing Tuesday to consider legislation that would attempt to give news companies great power to negotiate with major social and search platforms like Facebook and Google.

The hearing brought together a diverse set of figures to testify in favor of the bill. There was an advocate from the Open Markets Institute, a think tank that has drawn much of its personnel from the left, sitting alongside a senior lawyer from Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp — a media behemoth loathed by many on the left — next to an editor from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican best known for engaging in outlandish partisan verbal battles, spoke favorably of the bill, which is being spearheaded by Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee.

“We are presented with a historic opportunity here, where right-wing populists and left-wing populists have joined together under Chairman Cicilline’s leadership to attempt to change the way that consumers interface with major technology platforms,” Gaetz said, in an apparent reference to the bipartisan support for the bill.

The bill would create a four-year exemption from antitrust law for news publishers to band together to negotiate as one group with the online platforms. They are currently prohibited from doing so by antitrust law.

“The current antitrust laws protect Google and Facebook from us, ironically,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a trade association that claims to represent over 2,000 newspapers in the U.S.

Under questioning from a Republican lawmaker, Chavern pitched the bill in terms that would appeal to a free-market conservative. “We’re asking to be left alone to defend ourselves,” Chavern said.

Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute, told the committee in her written testimony that companies like Facebook and Google “now have unprecedented power over reporters and news publishers” because of their “ability to control the distribution of information, ad money, and the relationship between the reader and the news outlet.”

The proposed legislation, known as the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, was characterized by Politico’s Jack Shafer in a critical column as enabling news publishers to “collectively withhold content from Google, Facebook and other sites and negotiate the terms under which the two tech giants could use their work.”

This kind of organized bargaining is prohibited under current law, and among other criticisms, Shafer argues it would “prop up one media sector by selectively bestowing special competitive privileges on it.”

Cicilline described the hearing Tuesday as “the first significant antitrust investigation undertaken by Congress in decades.”

He decried “a market structure where a small number of platforms are capturing the value created by journalists and publishers.”

“While I do not view this legislation as a substitute for more meaningful competition online or antitrust scrutiny, it is clear that we must do something in the short term to save trustworthy journalism before it is lost forever,” Cicilline said. “This bill is a life-support measure, not the remedy for long-term health.”

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