Big media push to change Antitrust law...

Lawmakers Look to Even Playing Field Between News Media, Tech Titans

Measure to allow news publishers to negotiate together with platform giants to be introduced Wednesday in House

By Keach Hagey Updated April 3, 2019 3:29 p.m. ET

Legislation that would allow news publishers to team up on negotiations with tech giants such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. didn’t advance very far in the last Congress.

Now, its backers are hoping the latest version, which is expected to be introduced Wednesday, will gain momentum in a Democratic-controlled House and draw bipartisan support.

The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act is sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline (D., R.I.), chairman of the House antitrust subcommittee, and Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.).

News publishers have struggled to make money on digital ads, partly because of the dominance of Facebook and Google. Antitrust law bars the news companies from working together in negotiations with the tech platforms.

The bill would give publishers a 48-month safe harbor from those rules, during which they would be free to work together to push their case on issues from revenue splits to data-sharing to content-licensing.

Mr. Cicilline said the urgency for such a measure was increasing.

“Local media and local publishers are really on life support,” he said, pointing to news-industry data showing that publishers have lost more than $30 billion in ad revenue since 2006 while Facebook and Google made more than $60 billion in ad revenue just last year alone.

“You can see that because of their dominance in the marketplace, they are generating most of the revenue.”

People familiar with Facebook’s thinking say that an antitrust exemption for publishers would likely harm consumers and fail to help the solve the business model problems that it is intending to help fix. A spokesman from Google declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech-industry advocacy group, said the association was waiting until the bill is introduced to comment.

The legislation would have to clear many hurdles on Capitol Hill before becoming law; there is now no companion bill in the Senate. Mr. Cicilline said he and Mr. Collins intend to hold hearings about the plight of news publishers.

Some Senate Republicans have indicated support for measures pushing back on the tech giants. Last month, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz retweeted a complaint from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) that Facebook had too much power over speech, saying, “She’s right.”

In January, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley said he would be open to working with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) to investigate the power of big tech companies.

Mr. Collins, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said rural communities had been particularly hard-hit by challenges to news publishers’ business model. He emphasized that his goal wasn’t “propping up a failed business model,” but rather providing “a level playing field so they can negotiate with these much larger essentially new companies that are causing an advertising drain.”

David Chavern, the president of the News Media Alliance, the publishers advocacy group, said the bill could hold bipartisan appeal because it is “actually a fairly low-touch way” of striking back at the tech companies, in contrast to proposals from figures such as Ms. Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, who advocate breaking up the tech companies altogether.

Dow Jones, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is a member of the NMA.

Mr. Collins said he didn’t support breaking up the tech companies, adding, “Simply being big is not bad.”

Several publishers threw their support behind the bill. “I do think that no single news company has the scale to negotiate with most of the platforms,” said Neil Patel, publisher of The Daily Caller website, adding that the bill would “allow for business model innovation between publishers and platforms, which is something that’s been missing.”

Josh Tyrangiel, a Vice Media executive who has held senior posts at Bloomberg and Time magazine, said he had watched the power in the industry steadily drift toward the platforms. “If we don’t start being serious, there won’t be small publishers left,” he said.

Grant Moise, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, said metro papers like his were among the hardest hit by the financial challenges, in part because the platforms’ control of user data has made it harder for publishers to sell ads and sign up digital subscribers.

“They have the data,” he said. “When readers are coming to us through the platforms, our inability to directly market to them makes it extremely challenging to the business.”


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