The negative impact of Big Tech—primarily perceived as consisting of Facebook and Google, but also including Amazon—on American society was one of the major themes at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers, which was held on June 3 in New York.
Two speakers, Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute, and author Walter Isaacson took on the topic from slightly different points of view. Hubbard noted that Facebook and Google have been allowed to grow so big because of an interpretation of antitrust legislation that makes keeping prices low, rather than promoting fair competition, the primary goal of antitrust enforcement. She sees Big Tech’s ability to control the flow of information as undermining the viability of the press and thereby posing a threat to free speech.
Hubbard didn’t criticize Facebook and Google for growing so large (through, among other ways, acquiring startups that might pose a threat to them), but rather blamed government for not enforcing the antitrust laws correctly, as well as for its failure to pass legislation that would regulate Big Tech.
Isaacson was less charitable toward the large technology companies. He commended book publishers for not getting “Napsterized” like the newspaper and magazine industries by finding ways to keep readers paying for the content they publish. And, while he said the internet is a great tool for allowing people to disseminate information, he criticized Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, which allows Big Tech to avoid responsibility for the content that is posted on their platforms. However, Isaacson said, he believes we are entering a new phase of the digital revolution in which Big Tech will be forced to be accountable for the material they carry.
Both Isaacson and Hubbard said there are signs that pushback against the lack of regulation of Big Tech is beginning to gain momentum, in part because both political parties believe there is a need to rein in the large technology companies. (Indeed, even as the AAP's meeting was being held, the Department of Justice and the FTC said they would initiate antitrust investigations into Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon). Hubbard said the goal of any legislation should be to reduce technology companies’ chokehold over the flow of information. Isaacson said that just as print publishers have long been responsible for the material they publish, Big Tech must now be held accountable for what they allow on their platforms if the U.S. is to maintain a civil society. He said he is not sure whether the social networks are now doing more harm than good.
Protection of copyright was another theme of the meeting, as was reflected in the AAP's presentation of its award for Distinguished Public Service to Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY), chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. In making the presentation, AAP CEO Maria Pallante praised Nadler for his unwavering support in advancing legislation that protects the interests of creators. Nadler said he recognizes the need to maintain robust copyright laws that reflect a changing environment. He also said he was "very much taken" by Hubbard's remarks about Big Tech, and told attendees to expect an announcement after 5 p.m. Indeed, shortly after that time came the announcement that the Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee would open hearings to examine the power of the Silicon Valley giants.
In her opening remarks, Pallante touched on some of the ongoing initiatives the AAP is involved with, including fighting the proposed 25% tariffs on books from China. She said the AAP is "actively engaged" with the U.S. Trade Representative about the issue, has been on the Hill arguing for an end to the tariff, and is preparing a statement for the June 17 hearing on the tariff proposal.
Also during the meeting, the AAP presented its International Freedom to Publish Award to NB Publishers of South Africa. The award was given to the publisher for its determination to publish The President's Keepers by Jacques Pauw, a book highly critical of Jacob Zuma, who was president of South Africa in 2017 and was soon defeated by Cyril Ramaphosa. In accepting the award, NB publisher Eloise Wessels said the win gives credence "not only to our efforts, but to those of the South African publishing industry as a whole, in helping to shape the political landscape by publishing books that challenge the status quo."