As it turns out, Hollywood has persuaded the Obama administration on a number of occasions to use (or misuse) existing law against services it deems to be infringing. In a case that journalists did cover, the administration confiscated the domain name of hip-hop website dajaz1.com in November 2010—and then stonewalled requests for information and redress, the site’s attorney told reporters. Not until a year later did the government return the domain name, with no serious explanation and a minimal expression of regret for an act of outright censorship. It’s difficult to imagine the American government taking a newspaper’s website offline, or preventing it from delivering its print copies; yet something like that happened in this case. (Disclosure: The First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization of which I am a member of the board, has taken an interest in this case.)
Entertainment companies aren’t the only corporate interests that threaten journalists’ ability to do their jobs. Private companies are creating their own ecosystems, with minimal regulatory interference, that news organizations find tantalizingly useful but which may turn out to be a mixed blessing.
Consider Apple. The news industry’s longstanding love affair with what has become the most valuable company on Earth expanded with the death of Steve Jobs. But Apple has a long history of controlling behavior. If you create a journalism app to be sold in the iPhone or iPad marketplace, you explicitly give Apple the right to decide whether your journalism content is acceptable under the company’s vague guidelines. Apple has used this to block material it considers improper, including (until the company came under fire for this) refusing for a time to allow Mark Fiore, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoons, to sell his own app. Given the dominance Apple now enjoys in the tablet market, journalists should have a Plan B. Apple’s paranoia (not too strong a word) and secretive ways have led it to attack journalism itself. In 2004 the company tried to force several websites to disclose their sources in their Apple coverage; the case was a direct challenge to fundamental business-journalism practices. (Note: I played a small role in that case, filing declarations on behalf of the websites that they were engaged in protected journalism.)
Facebook is another potential threat to independent journalism. Most journalists feel they have no choice but to use the social networking service, which has become by far the most dominant site online. But Facebook’s walled-garden approach—it is creating what amounts to an alternative Internet—brings risks. Moreover, Facebook and a small number of other technology companies are capturing the bulk of online advertising. Amazingly, more and more news organizations are outsourcing their online commenting to Facebook, further solidifying the position of a company that gains vastly more from these arrangements—namely detailed information on users’ browsing habits—than it gives up. To the extent that journalists participate in their ecosystems, they are fueling their top competitors.
That competition clearly includes search engines. Google, for example, has enormous power to decide who is visible, and has collected staggering amounts of data on our individual preferences and how we use the Internet. So far, the company has behaved in mostly benign ways. But it may not always be in the hands of people who take seriously the “don’t be evil” mantra the founders established at the beginning.
Government regulators are taking closer looks at the technology companies. This is potentially an important brake on abuse. But as we’ve seen repeatedly, Republican presidents tend not to enforce antitrust laws with anywhere near the effort—such as it is—that Democrats bring.