To help the news business, subject Big Tech to antitrust — but don't forget Big News's antitrust problem

The University of Chicago Business School's Promarket blog has run a transcript of former antitrust enforcer Sally Hubbard's June 11 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on June 11, 2019, where Hubbard discusses the ways that the monopolized and concentrated tech sector have eroded the margins of the news business, creating a "decline of American journalism."

Hubbard describes how algorithmic upranking or downranking can make or break a media outlet, while ad targeting gives Big Tech the power to command better ad rates than news media can attain; she accepts Big Tech's claim that its machine-learning persuasion technologies can "learn what messages people are susceptible to, whether ads or propaganda" and then create public opinion (I'm skeptical of this claim — I don't know why we'd take Big Tech's sales literature at face value).

Hubbard then lays into Big Tech's anticompetitive activities, like the buying sprees that have them snapping up hundreds of small companies every year, and the use of "monopoly power to exclude competition."

In response to all this, Hubbard calls for the whole suite of antitrust remedies: forcing selloffs of Big Tech's acquisitions, banning future purchases of small companies that take Big Tech into new lines of business, and an end to "exclusionary practices."

I'm pretty much in favor of all of that, but I was also disappointed by the narrowness of the frame that Hubbard uses to describe news media's woes, and not just because of her belief in Big Tech's ability to turn surveillance data into a mind-control ray.

The story of the news media doesn't start the day that Craigslist started to upend the classified ad market. It starts at least a decade before, when private equity firms started to buy up and merge local news outlets (including rival papers and TV stations). These corporate raiders loaded up the media companies with debt, centralized their sales forces, gutted their news-rooms, laid off unionized drivers and printers and switched to contractors, sold off physical plant leased it back, sold off their flagship headquarter buildings in prime downtown locations and became tenants instead of landlords, and outsourced much of their reporting to wire services, so that each town's paper became largely indistinguishable from the paper in the next town.

These changes left the news business in a brittle state: deprived of its war-chests, producing an inferior product, shed of the local sales knowledge that had been painstakingly built over decades, and liable to shocks in labor, real-estate and debt markets.

And then the dotcoms came, and suddenly, the wire-service-stuffed papers that were identical to their neighbors were all available everywhere, even as classified ads got much more efficient thanks to Craigslist and its successors, and then real estate prices went bonkers, and so on.

Big Tech's dominance isn't helping Big News, but Big News is no paragon of competitive virtue. What's more, efforts to "fix news" by limiting who can link to news sites will only cement Big Tech's dominance, because Big Tech can afford linking licenses while potential nascent competitors can't.

I'm also worried about Hubbard's idea that we should give users "ownership of their data." Using property frames to describe something like private information is a recipe for disaster: when you and your friend have a conversation, who owns the fact that the conversation exists? You? Your friend? If everyone who sees you walking down the street is co-owner of the fact that you were walking down the street, do they all have to agree before that fact can be shared? Giving people control over their data is really important. Giving them ownership of that data is a terrible one.

Antitrust enforcement alone won't solve all of the problems listed above, but we won't be able to solve anything unless we weaken monopolies' power. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

News is not just any commodity. It's a social good that is essential to hold power to account. It was a journalist named Ida Tarbell that took down the most notorious monopoly in US history, Standard Oil. News deserves the special protection it has had throughout American history, through non-discrimination and interoperability rules for networks. We also need rules to curb invasive data collection by default and to give citizens ownership of their data.

The good news is that we have been here before. We have stood up to powerful tech monopolists. Each time, we were better for it. We unleashed new waves of innovation. We restored our markets and removed gatekeepers. But if we don't act now to change the structure of our markets, titans will continue to control speech, journalism will continue to wither, and so will our democracy.

The Decline of American Journalism Is an Antitrust Problem [Sally Hubbard/Promarket]