The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) was introduced in 2021 as a means of protecting local media outlets from becoming obsolete due to the competitive landscape shifting to the online realm. The JCPA claims that the playing field needs to be leveled for news outlets in need of viewers and compensation must be allotted for the content sharing occurring on digital platforms.
This bill, receiving serious consideration from the Senate, would grant broadcasters the ability to collectively collude on matters of revenue generation, sharing privileges, and link click-through access. Essentially, the JCPA will exempt select parties within the news industry from price fixing policies and antitrust penalties – all for the sake of socking it to Big Tech.
The passing of this legislation should be a primary concern for any business professional since it will not only create new forms of industry interference but also set a new precedent regarding antitrust application. And here is why:
- The JCPA is targeted since it only focuses on one sector with one bullseye – Big Tech. Historically antitrust policy has had a broad application, but if the JCPA passes, it opens the door for other firms to be specifically called out in the future on similar grounds.
- The JCPA is preferential in that although antitrust cases are being brought forth against digital platforms, bands of broadcasters will be granted safe harbor from cases being brought against them. They would be absolved from adhering to existing antitrust laws.
- The JCPA is ex post facto in that changes and charges are to be applied regarding content sharing and link clicking, which were previously free and freely accessible.
The basic premise is that it will “provide a temporary safe harbor for publishers of online content to collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms regarding the terms on which content may be distributed”.
So, first and foremost, we must ask what is meant by “temporary” given that nothing is ever short-lived when agencies and accolades are involved. According to the bill, news outlets with online content will not be held accountable for violations of antitrust law for a four-year term. But, even if those four years are truly locked in place, it is unlikely that any oversight committee, which will be required in this case, will easily disband when that timespan has lapsed – particularly once funding streams and authority status are established.
We must also ask why “safe harbor” should be granted to select firms. Protectionist measures via legislation are a waste of resources given that private actors have historically done a better job at curtailing or even catching bad behavior in a competitive market.
It was Sherron Watkins who exposed Enron, not the SEC, and it was Bernie Maddoff’s sons who turned him in, not federal agents. And just as Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook unseated Tom Anderson’s Myspace as the social networking site of choice, someone else will come along and upend Meta’s dominance. That is how the market works over time. This leads to the third and final point: should “dominant online platforms” truly be a concern?
While some assert that cable TV simply can’t compete, and “newspapers are locked in a life-or-death struggle with tech giants” we must acknowledge that change is hard and you can’t stop progress. In 2010, the last full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica was printed, and it hasn’t been missed by consumers or even the company that produced them.
Microsoft’s Encarta made the purchase of printed text obsolete, and now Wikipedia makes Encarta CD-ROMs a thing of the past. And one could argue we have greater access and education at our fingertips for it.
As conveyed by the deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center, “It is up to media firms to discover innovative and effective methods of capturing digital audiences, not lobby governments to siphon money for them.”
Platforms vary in terms of function and service, and Big Tech is not impervious to natural forms of competition given the dynamic nature of market mechanisms and consumer needs. Take, for example, Netflix, which launched in 2007 and skyrocketed to success in 2013 with the release of its first series, House of Cards – coincidentally a storyline based on power struggles and corrupt cronies in Congress. By 2016, Netflix was being touted as monopolizing the streaming service sector and for a few years, the press readily called attention to its success as something to question and even fear.
In 2013, the term FANG stocks came about to represent industry giants with a stronghold in certain lucrative sectors and who could serve as the whipping boy for Big Business on Capitol Hill. FANG included companies that we love to use but also love to loathe: Facebook (social media), Amazon (e-commerce), Netflix (streaming entertainment), and Google (search engine).
Although we see these companies being under great scrutiny in the halls of Congress for their supposed monopolization of power, we can see before our eyes how the market is moving despite lobbying efforts and party officials crying foul. Indeed, fast forward to today and the FANG acronym is less applicable not only given name changes (Facebook to Meta) but position changes, whereas success is now dwindling for Netflix.
Hulu, HBO Max, Disney+, Prime Video, Starz, Peacock, Paramount Plus, Apple TV Plus, and more have all emerged despite Netflix’s previous power position. And the same will be true for others in the Big Tech realm over time. Decentralized P2P platforms are increasing in users and Facebook is facing cannibalization from within.
Twitter is another great example of a Big Tech firm that bureaucrats love to bash. Presently, arguments over posting privileges are being raised by Congressional members but if to have a little patience, we can already see the market is making moves. Twitter’s power is waning in comparison to other platform providers in users and reach, and so much of the time spent debating Dorsey’s former firm could be better spent on other matters.
To be sure, Senators have a skewed view of how the market works, and even a limited understanding of where their concerns should lie in regard to the digital media realm – and yet the interest for interference is growing.
In addition to the JCPA, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees are also aiming to further their control over the online realm through the proposed tech accountability package. This package is proposed as a means for curtailing the dominance of certain digital platforms, but in reality, it is a significant power grab – and the power they are after is truly alarming.
These proposals further embed politics in economics, whereas the government will not only serve as a referee but also determine who can or can’t play. Congress will be corralling competition for online content creation and distribution, and the JCPA will substantiate such a mandate.
While economic power is limited by the market (since purpose and profit are determined by the exchange of goods, services, investments, labor, etc.), political power is a tricky beast given the incentives present for incumbents and the power of the purse strings for those in prominent positions.
To be sure, the network effects of political dynasties in DC are a more troublesome matter than the network effects of social media and so we should be very wary of allowing the government to have a larger role in industry matters – even when it comes to Big Tech.