It's a truism that the real news story isn't the dog biting the man, but vice versa. A proposed US law aimed at helping small media outlets stand up to big technology firms gives new life to the old cliché. The problem is that the market distortions that benefit Big Tech are too entrenched for it to have much effect.
The new bill, reported by Reuters on Friday, would let small media companies bargain collectively with Facebook or Google, the search division of Alphabet, without falling foul of laws that punish collusion. Democratic Representative David Cicilline, one of the sponsors, has proposed a similar bill before. This time, though, technology companies are more politically vulnerable. The siege of the US capitol on Jan. 6 showed the danger of online misinformation, which a well-funded media can help counteract.
A shield like the one the bill would propose is innovative in its application, but not revolutionary. Labor unions already enjoy special treatment under competition rules. And there are two problems. First, the law may help only the very small publications, and collectively they make up just a tiny part of the Big Tech's business. Even if newspapers could bargain en masse, there's no guarantee the extra profit will go to fund investigative local news rather than, say, dividends for private owners.
Moreover, the market distortions run much deeper. For a century or more competition regulators have mostly focused on prices and mergers, allowing companies like Facebook and Alphabet to grow with few checks and balances. The two now have a collective market value of nearly $2.2 trillion. Antitrust watchdogs have only recently turned their attention to the clout they wield.
Australia is engaged in a face-off with Facebook over paying media firms a fair price for news. If an entire country can't push Facebook around, the combined force of America's local newspapers is unlikely to have much chance. A real shift in the balance of power calls for a new approach to the value of information: who has it, how they got it, and how they use it. That means thinking of user data as a precious asset, like money that depositors stow in banks – and focusing on the headline, not the small print.