Facebook and Google have become the de facto regulators of news and speech – deciding what content people see and when.
Their dominating control over how we communicate has serious implications for Freedom of Press and our broader rights under the First Amendment.
To be sure, the First Amendment provisions on speech and press do not apply to private entities like Big Tech companies; they are only limitations placed on the government. But the Founders could not have envisioned a future in which the distribution of nearly all news and information would be controlled by two private entities: Facebook and Google.
Any time a Big Tech company removes specific posts or bans a disruptive user, the op-ed pages of the most prestigious publications – and many of our Twitter timelines – often focus on the implications for free speech and the spirit of the First Amendment.
However, a sorely underexamined aspect of Big Tech’s impact on the First Amendment is the control they have over the flow of news content, and the corresponding devastating impact on local newspapers. These companies decide what you see and whether (if at all) your local publisher gets paid for its work.
People go online all day every day to learn about the world and their communities. Local publishers report on tangible things – like the ribbon cutting of a new small business or the state football championship. And they also hold politicians to account and sustain democracy.
Big Tech likes the audiences that local publishers deliver, but they don’t want to pay for the journalism. Facebook and Google rake in profits by simply curating “content,” which is just a fancy word for the articles, photos, and videos that are the work product of real journalists doing the hard work of reporting at local newspapers.
Google and Facebook’s complete dominance of the digital advertising market has also allowed them to dictate terms and enabled them to cut side deals for themselves and shortchange small and local publishers across the country.
Big Tech companies have too much economic and political power in society, especially over the news industry. No companies should have this much control over an entire industry, especially the industry responsible for keeping Americans informed.
Legislative solutions like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) are essential to reign in the influence of these out-of-control tech titans, revive struggling local news organizations, and protect the First Amendment.
The JCPA levels the playing field between Big Tech and small and local publishers by allowing them to collectively negotiate fair terms for using their content by Big Tech companies. The bill has also recently been refocused to exclusively benefit small and local publishers – especially those that reinvest in journalists. The JCPA is also content-neutral, allowing outlets to receive their fair share from Big Tech regardless of how their opinion pages lean.
If Congress does not pass the JCPA, local newsrooms will continue to struggle to stay afloat, and Big Tech will continue to fill the void with their platforms, fueled by algorithms optimized to keep readers outraged and at each other’s throats. All the while, their executives’ and investors will continue to reap staggering profits from the economic and political disfunction they are creating.
In today’s partisan political climate, it is rare for Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything – but the JCPA is one important exception. We need to pass the JCPA to ensure that publishers – especially small and local publishers – are treated fairly and compensated justly.