About a year ago, Bill C-18—The Online News Act—was introduced into the Canadian House of Commons. On its face C-18 will require online platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter, to negotiate with Canadian news organizations. The coverage of C-18, at least what I’ve been seeing, has been … weird. Since most Canadian news orgs have a vested interest in the outcome, they haven’t been reliable. Instead, the coverage comes from media critics like Jesse Brown, and Law professor Michael Geist, who are, perhaps, less conflicted about the bill and who have been fairly consistently and sharply critical of it.I’m critical of Brown and Geist here, but not always. Brown has insightful takes on Canadian media more often than most other journalists, while Geist was somewhat heroic when it came to … Continue reading between the two of them they paint a picture of a Postmedia, Torstar, and other media conglomerates using the Liberal government to shake down tech platforms for subsidies, and that, while this shakedown might help the big guys, it will almost certainly harm independent news outlets and ordinary Canadians. Indeed, recent developments seem to have confirmed this story as Google has made moves to block news links from Canadians, with Facebook/Instagram following suit.
But there’s always been something that’s bothered me about these narratives—for all their correct Herman-Chomsky-esque analysis of news media as consisting of huge profit-seeking corporations, they seem to assiduously avoid turning that lens on the tech platforms. Take, for instance, Prof. Geist’s framing of the news that Facebook planned to block news sharing for Canadians:
Rather than calling it what it is—a giant multinational corporation run by a billionaire attempting to extort the duly elected government of Canada with the threat of a capital strike—Geist calls it “the Consequence” of the government doing its job and attempting to regulate a market, which implies that what is happening is simply the laws of nature at work—just as if you throw a ball X m/s at angle Y, it will trace parabola Z in the air, and if you strike a healthy person’s knee just so, they will kick, if you try to regulate a market, it will cease to function. The only agents in the story are the government and the media companies, and they’re playing with forces they are either too stupid to understand or too corrupt to acknowledge. Facebook and Google, or more accurately, their managers, are not agents here, or to the extent that they are agents, they’re good-faith agents trying to provide a service—the shop-owner to the government and big media’s racketeer.
This framing couldn’t be farther from the truth. Not only are Google, Facebook, etc. actors in this dispute, they are often bad actors. Take, for instance, the infamous pivot to video, when Facebook told news and entertainment publishers that, according to The Data, the best way for publishers to drive users to their sites—i.e., to their advertisers—was to make videos instead of written content. Of course it turned out that The Data was bullshit. As Cory Doctorow put it: “Big Tech Isn’t Stealing News Publishers’ Content It’s Stealing Their Money.” Google and Facebook are no innocent grocers being shook down.
Including the Big Tech firms as actors also puts in a new light another concern over C-18 that’s been brought up, usually by Jesse Brown—that Bill C-18 would create a government registry of news media, with only those in the registry benefiting from the ability to bargain with Big Tech. Any sort of state press registry, of course, is at least in tension with the notion of a free press, as the original notion of a free press was in opposition to restrictive press licensing regimes in monarchical societies.
Adding Big Tech into the mix, though, complicates the matter. Google and Facebook are able to credibly extort the governments because they have made themselves seem virtually indispensable to news media—the Big Tech “platforms” are how news gets disseminated. The threat to drop news was credible, for a more sinister reason too: Google and Facebook could actually do it—Google and Facebook know which sites publish news and they are able to shut them out of their platforms. Viewed this way, it’s hard to see the Big Tech “platforms” as anything but a potentially restrictive press registry, but a privately held registry, shielded from even the modicum of transparency and responsibility that an elected government has. Even if C-18 doesn’t require transparency or responsibility, it could serve as a precedent for further regulation of Big Tech.
But to be clear, I’m not here to defend Postmedia, Torstar, or the Liberal Party government of Canada. Big Media, as Herman and Chomsky have argued, consists of a handful of giant profit-seeking corporations, that have no interest in competition, preferring to have an oligopoly, while Justin Trudeau’s government mostly lurches from corruption scandal to corruption scandal, and in between it’s a bog-standard centrist administration, meaning it does virtually nothing for Canadians while saying the right things. I’m fairly sure the only reason they’ve remained in power for this long, is that the main opposition is obviously much worse.There’s a narrative that probably stretches back to a time when the Whigs squared off against the Tories in which the left/liberal party pushes a country’s legislation forward and the … Continue reading
There don’t seem to be any good actors in this story, and that’s what makes it tough to talk about—that and the universality among Serious Commentators. of a particular assumption called capitalist realism, expressed by one of it’s greatest proponents as “There is no alternative”, and by its critics as fact that for most elites “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” We’re at a crisis-point in media industries. Big Tech and Big Media depend on each other—Big Tech needs media to serve to its users, while Big Media needs platforms to serve its products to the consumers—but they also compete with each other—both industries are funded by a finite pool of advertising money. This is an untenable situation, as capitalist competition means one firm trying to put the other firm out of business, an outcome that, in this case, would mean self-destruction. Serious Commentators will always struggle to properly explain the nature of this crisis, because it’s not the fault of any of the individual actors, but something inherent in capitalism, and under capitalist realism capitalism is like air or water—maybe it’s polluted or corrupted a bit, but the idea that there’s anything per se wrong with it is unimaginable.
There’s another problem with the Big Tech–Big Media relationship that conflicts with capitalist realism—Big Tech is clearly the dominant side, despite the fact that it depends on Big Media.Big Tech arguably needs Big Media more than the other way around. Big Tech, as a player in the news industry, is a creature of the 21st century—Google News came out in 2002, Facebook in 2004, … Continue reading Such a situation is almost unthinkable under capitalist realism, as it’s almost axiomatic that relations of dominance are, in fact, derived from dependence—Capitalists “create jobs”, Landlords “provide housing”, Slave owners “feed, clothe, and shelter” enslaved people. This is why truisms like “you don’t need your job, your job needs you” are so subversive. So the idea that Facebook needs media firms and also can effectively dictate their business practices is nonsense, no matter how much the facts suggest it.
And again, I’m not saying that the coverage should flip, and take the side of Big Media and the Government—there are no good actors here. Rather, coverage should take the side of the people who are likely to be harmed bay any outcome—the actual journalists and the consumers of journalism. Indeed, it’s difficult to have a clear-eyed view of this and similar dust-ups and not adopt the slogan ¡Que se vayan todos! (“They can all go to hell!”). What would such an approach mean? It would mean coverage of that includes the context that Big Tech and Big Media are both a collection of monopolistic profit-seekers, that reminds us that Big Tech keeps committing fraud, that the Liberals promised us good things, including electoral reform, and reneged. This is all too much to hope for, but for a start, it would be nice for Serious Commentators to treat Big Tech as what it is—a cabal of monopolists threatening to punish Canadians for the crime of trying to regulate them.
|↑1||I’m critical of Brown and Geist here, but not always. Brown has insightful takes on Canadian media more often than most other journalists, while Geist was somewhat heroic when it came to copyright and digital privacy in the earlier 21st century. Both seem incapable of seeing Big Tech clearly though, I suspect, having to do with their relations to the cycles of enshittification at Google and Facebook. Maybe I’ll write a separate post about that.|
|↑2||There’s a narrative that probably stretches back to a time when the Whigs squared off against the Tories in which the left/liberal party pushes a country’s legislation forward and the right/conservative party resists such moves. The reverse is now true: the right/conservative parties actively enact barbaric and anti-social policies, and the left/liberal parties, despite promises of rolling back said policies, mostly just do nothing when in power.|
|↑3||Big Tech arguably needs Big Media more than the other way around. Big Tech, as a player in the news industry, is a creature of the 21st century—Google News came out in 2002, Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006—while Big Media goes back much farther, and Big Tech has repeatedly gone out of their way to entice media firms to become more integrated in the tech platforms they control.|