OPINION: Social Media Companies Must Increase Transparency

David Chavern | President and CEO, News Media Alliance

The news media industry has long been a canary in a coal mine, warning of the same arrogance and irresponsibility at Facebook as was uncovered in last week’s deeply investigated New York Times reporting.

For more than a decade, the news industry has grappled with Facebook as it fueled growth with content produced by our professional newsrooms. In return, Facebook (along with Google) took the vast bulk of all digital ad dollars and returned almost nothing to the reporters and editors who delivered great journalism. It’s been avarice without accountability.

Facebook has long promised to address the problem while delivering no material changes. In particular, they have been unwilling to do anything that might limit their commercial interests or dominance over individual content creators.

That pattern may sound familiar to Capitol Hill policymakers worrying about the problem of foreign manipulation of voters, or suppression of particular political views.

While saying nice things, Facebook makes no firm commitments and offers no real transparency on the scope of the problems or the steps they are taking to address them. They act with the expectation that we will all be blinded by the gleam of their (oft-stated) good intentions and sheer tech coolness.

There is a lot of discussion about what might be done to cause Facebook to behave better. Break them up? Regulate them? Subject them to actual liability for content (the way news publishers are)?

Although some of these ideas might be popular with Democrats who will soon control the House, Republicans (who have increased their majority in the Senate) have long been reluctant to interject government into private sector business models. Break-ups have a very mixed history — as does government regulation and increased legal liability.

The good news is that there is a fast, turn-key solution before Congress that involves doing nothing to Facebook. Congress just needs to grant the news media industry the freedom to work together to drive a better deal. Incoming House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee chair, Congressman David Cicilline, has introduced legislation to do this.

Ironically, antitrust laws currently protect Facebook from publishers. These laws currently preclude the news media industry from working collectively to negotiate on any range of issues — data sharing, algorithm transparency and ad revenue. The booksellers ran into the same antitrust precedent in their fight with Apple.

Freeing the news media industry to work together is the lightest touch, most free market solution to curtailing Facebook’s overweening influence while also improving the economics of journalism.

The Federal Government has abetted Facebook’s dominance by turning a blind eye to anticompetitive acquisitions (Instagram, WattsApp) and giving free rein to its vast personal data collection machine.

It’s time to start balancing the scales and give news publishers the capacity to demand a fair return for the investments they make in journalism.

The next Congress will certainly hold hearings on Facebook’s history of behavior and percolate different policy solutions to impose on the company. They should prioritize solutions that rebalance the marketplace — not just by trying to defang Facebook but by allowing those who are the victims of its troubling dominance to fight back.

David Chavern is president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a trade association representing some 2,000 newspapers in the United States and Canada.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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