In today’s politically charged climate, it is infrequent that an issue or piece of legislation garners bipartisan support.
Last year, in a rare display of bipartisanship, an essential and long-overdue reform designed to modernize America’s infrastructure was signed into law by President Biden, having received the support of dozens of congressional Republicans and nearly all Democrats.
This year, President Biden and Democrats in Congress have another unique opportunity to pass an important piece of legislation on a bipartisan basis: the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA).
The JCPA was initially circulated in 2018, and was just reintroduced last year by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Kennedy (R-LA). On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee held a hearing on the legislation, which is designed to curb Big Tech’s monopoly over news and information.
If passed, the JCPA would allow news publishers to collectively negotiate — under the authority of a federal arbiter — with social media companies, namely Meta and Alphabet, over how news is distributed online. This would make the news industry stronger and more equitable by ensuring that the smaller media entities that own local news outlets receive adequate compensation for their content so that they can continue to operate.
As things currently are, Big Tech is able to disseminate the intellectual property of media outlets without offering any compensation or benefit to these local newspapers and content providers. This is not only blatantly unfair — as it represents an expropriation of outlets’ work products without any economic benefit — but it is also one of the major reasons why local newspapers across the country are facing unprecedented challenges in remaining both economically viable and as life-blood in their communities.
For both practical and political reasons, President Biden and congressional Democrats should devote considerable attention, energy, and political capital to ensuring JCPA’s passage.
The necessity of implementing the reforms contained in JCPA is clear from a practical perspective. The world of news and information has changed dramatically over the last two decades, yet anti-trust and anti-monopoly laws haven’t changed with it.
As a result, local newspapers have been on life support throughout much of the 21st century. Google News, Facebook News, and similar news aggregator sites drive traffic to their sites by presenting a constant flow of links to articles from thousands of smaller publishers. Parent companies like Alphabet and Meta are then able to monetize their own advertising and related products — but they do so without fairly compensating smaller publishers for their material.
Indeed, the current copyright and anti-trust laws in the U.S. do not mandate compensation to publishers, nor do they provide any legal basis for news publishers to be able to collectively negotiate with these online platforms.
Given that companies such as Alphabet and Meta have not taken the initiative to self-regulate by making meaningful changes to their practices, it is now the job of elected officials in the federal government to step in in order to make news and information a freer and fairer industry.
It is noteworthy that the JCPA is part of a global trend in which governments have been cracking down on social media monopolies by strengthening their anti-trust laws. The Canadian government is working on a proposal similar to the JCPA, and last year, Australia became the first government to pass actual legislation to that effect.
In the U.S. alone, over the last several months, there have been numerous anti-trust hearings in Congress in which the CEOs of Big Tech social media companies were questioned about their approach of essentially bullying competitors into either accepting buyouts, or face being destroyed.
Though JCPA has bipartisan support in the House and Senate, it does also face opposition from some members of both parties.
Some critics — mainly on the left — are claiming that the JCPA would enable large news outlets to make special deals with Big Tech companies, thus worsening the problem of monopolization in the news industry. However, this is inaccurate, as the bill does not allow big companies to negotiate alone or to broker side agreements, under the threat of harsh penalties.
Those on the political right have taken issue with the bill for different reasons, arguing that it would actually give Big Tech more power to discriminate against smaller conservative publications for the purposes of demonetizing the outlet. Yet, the JCPA is also written to prevent Big Tech from engaging in this kind of behavior.
Though there are provisions and language in the current bill that need to be carefully studied and debated over the next several months, it’s clear that the time has come for the U.S. to rein in Big Tech.
Politically, with Democrats facing a stalled legislative agenda and Biden facing record-low approval numbers, the party needs to show voters that they can deliver on important bipartisan reforms.
President Biden begin increasing the visibility of the issue by addressing the JCPA in his State of the Union speech next month and urging for its passage. At the same time, congressional Democrats should publicly promote and sell the bill to Americans in a way that voters can understand, engage with, and give Democrats credit for.
Ultimately, if America is to have a news and information industry that is truly free and fair, we must stop allowing Big Tech companies to engage in market manipulation without consequence. We can start by passing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act into law.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant and a weekly columnist for the Orange County Register.