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A bill to allow publishers to join forces when they bargain with Google and Facebook languished in the last Congress. But a bipartisan pair of lawmakers is hoping the legislation has a better chance this session — especially as a Democratic-controlled House increasingly seeks ways to rein in Big Tech’s power.
Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chair of the House antitrust subcommittee, and Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the House Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, say they reintroduced The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act this week. The duo made the case onstage at a Post Live event yesterday that the legislation is needed to level the playing field between tech giants and local news publishers.
“It grows out of a recognition that we need to do something to give local media, local news publishers the ability to survive,” Cicilline said at the event.
Cicilline argues that as ad revenue shifts from news publishers to Facebook and Google, it's time for Congress to intervene. Under current antitrust laws, news publishers are barred from working together as they seek deals with the tech platforms. But under their proposed bill, publishers would be granted a four-year safe harbor exempting them from those rules and allowing them to team up to negotiate better deals with tech companbies. That could give publishers more power as they negotiate how their content is distributed, as well as better deal terms around such things as revenue splits or content licensing fees.
The legislation is back on the table as the tech giants’ own efforts to bolster local news are inadvertently drawing attention to the damage their own industry's rise has dealt to smaller papers’ advertising revenue. As Facebook rolls out its new local news service, the company says the service is being hindered by so-called "news deserts" where the social network’s technicians can’t find enough original reporting to make the service work.
The bill is the latest signal Cicilline is going to use his perch on the House antitrust committee to challenge Facebook and Google. The Rhode Island Democrat said it’s time to look at the antitrust implications of big tech companies' media dominance and called for a reexamination of antitrust statutes written in the era of railroad monopolies.
“I think this is a moment to do a top to bottom examination of do we need to update and modernize our statutes so that we really are creating an environment for good competition that drives down cost, creates more choices, sparks innovation, Cicilline said. “And I think we are seeing just the opposite with a lot of Facebook's behavior.”
Cicilline also previously called on the Federal Trade Commission to open an antitrust investigation into the social network.
But it's unclear if their legislation would have a path forward in the Republican-controlled Senate as there is not yet a similar Senate measure. Though it has bipartisan support in the House, Republicans and Democrats appear to have different motivations in supporting the measure. Collins says the bill is about ensuring the survival of local news publishers in his district -- particularly in rural areas. He explained he doesn't think the large technology companies are "evil."
"So, this is, for me, is saying how do we do this without going in and saying just because they're big, they're bad," Collins said. "In fact, I reject that. I simply say how can we look at the economy to scale and make sure that there's a fair playing field through antitrust."
The bill is likely to face opposition from the technology companies. Anne Kornblut, Facebook's director of new initiatives on the news partnerships team at Facebook, said at the event that the social network shares the lawmakers' goal of ensuring that publishers can survive and aren't beholden to traffic from one tech platform. However, Kornblut said the company has some concerns. (Kornblut worked at The Washington Post until 2015.)
"We're in touch with their offices," Kornblut said. "I know our team has some concerns about the specifics of this approach, and my understanding--although I'm not a lawyer--is that it has to do with what it would--what it has historically done for consumers when this kind of regulation has been approached."
Kornblut also made the case that local news is important to Facebook and that the company can play a role in facilitating local news. The company committed $300 million to support news, with a focus on local reporting, earlier this year.
But not all local outlets are buying that argument. San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper said at the event that her paper's Facebook referrals dropped by 80% last year when the social network made changes to how news was prioritized on its platform. Cooper said she wants to stop seeing a "disingenuous appreciation of local news" from Facebook.
The company's response to Russian interference and white supremacists on the platform is "intellectually lazy and has done more to hurt this country in terms of media more than anything else over the last generation," Cooper contended.
BITS: Google canceled its controversial artificial intelligence ethics council following backlash from employees and other high-profile technologists, Vox's Kelsey Piper reports. As we reported in a newsletter earlier this week, the company faced a dilemma as employees petitioned the company to remove the leader of a top conservative think tank on the panel.
More than 2,400 Google employees eventually signed a petition calling for the removal of Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James from the council, called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council, earlier this week. The employees opposed James' track record on gender and immigration issues.
"It’s become clear that in the current environment, ATEAC can’t function as we wanted," the company said in a statement to Vox. "So we’re ending the council and going back to the drawing board. We’ll continue to be responsible in our work on the important issues that AI raises, and will find different ways of getting outside opinions on these topics."
NIBBLES: Amazon chief executive and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos and his now ex-wife MacKenzie Bezos disclosed their divorce settlement will leave him with 75% of their Amazon stock and voting powers over all of the stock they shared, the Washington Post's Craig Timberg and Greg Bensinger report.
"The announcement from the Bezoses — coming in a tweet from MacKenzie that was retweeted by Jeff — settled a closely watched matter of corporate governance affecting one of the world’s richest companies, with a market capitalization of $890 billion, and the world’s wealthiest person," Craig and Greg wrote. "The record divorce settlement, which also awards Jeff Bezos all of the couple’s joint holdings in The Washington Post and a space flight company, Blue Origin, is likely to remove uncertainty around the extent of his continued control over Amazon — a company he founded in 1994 and for which he remains chief executive and its largest shareholder."
With the settlement, MacKenzie Bezos becomes one of the wealthiest women in the world. She owns 4 percent of Amazon-- which is worth roughly $36 billion based on the company's market cap yesterday. Jeff Bezos retains 12% of the company.
BYTES: A federal judge gave Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and the Securities and Exchange Commission two weeks to settle the case over Musk's tweets, my colleagues Renae Merle and Faiz Siddiqui report.
The agency asked the U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan to hold Musk in contempt of its settlement after Musk tweeted claims that the company would deliver 500,000 vehicles this year. The SEC contends this violates its previous settlement, which requires Musk to have all tweets about business matters pre-approved so that he does not share information that could mislead investors. Tesla has admitted the tweet did not undergo an approval.
Musk later corrected the tweet to say the company would delivver 400,000 vehicles. But yesterday, Tesla said it would deliver between 360,000 and 400,000 vehicles this year. That further undermines Musk's legal defense, according to an analyst note from JP Morgan Chase.
“The now clear incongruence of CEO outlook statements with official company guidance may hurt the perception of management commentary, eroding investor confidence and potentially placing additional pressure on the shares,” the note said.