Forbidden Fruit

As if to remind those who might still be confused about what the antitrust movement against the tech giants is really about, newspapers are now making common cause with app developers to force Apple to delay new privacy protections that would have allowed app users to opt out of targeted advertising.

That’s right, the same newspapers that have been savaging the tech giants for years as evil privacy foes are fighting to stop Apple from making it harder for app developers to exploit your data.

Why? Because newspapers make money from advertising, of course. They are some of the app developers who want to continue to spy on you.

Does newspapers’ double-dealing on privacy suggest that their position on the tech giants more generally is driven by their bottom line rather than the goodness of their hearts?

You bet.

It is an interesting coincidence that newspapers have been busy trashing the tech giants—running articles accusing them not just of privacy violations but everything from monopolization to the addiction of children—just as the tech giants have out-competed them in their principal business line: the distribution of advertising.

Google and Facebook distribute advertising far more effectively than do newspapers because, as the Times itself recently explained:

consumers interact with [Google parent Alphabet] nearly every time they search for information, watch a video, hail a ride, order delivery in an app or see an ad online. Alphabet then improves its products based on the information it gleans from every user interaction, making its technology even more dominant.

Katie Benner & Cecilia Kang, Justice Dept. Plans to File Antitrust Charges Against Google in Coming Week, N.Y. Times, Sept. 3, 2020.

Consumers never will interact with news websites as much as they interact with these platforms, and so the product that newspapers offer to advertisers—ad distribution—will never be as effective as the product that Google and Facebook offer to advertisers. The result has been an exodus of advertising dollars from newspapers—which, along with television, were once almost the only game in ad distribution town—to the tech giants.

What newspapers should have done in response to this tech-driven decline in their ad-based business model was to cut the cord with advertising. For advertising, which is all about manipulating readers into buying products they don’t really want to buy, was always a bad fit for a news industry devoted to providing consumers with the information they need to engage in independent decisionmaking.

Newspapers should therefore have seized the opportunity presented by the decline in their advertising revenues to seek out public funding à la the BBC for what is, after all, a sacred public function.

Instead, the industry has appeared to embark on a campaign to scare the tech giants into paying them a share of their advertising revenues. Consider:

  • The “tech-lash” splashed across newspaper front pages over the past decade. That looks an awful lot like a message from media to big tech: pay up, or we’ll wreck your reputation. Of course, that could just have been driven by newspapers’ concerns about privacy. But newspapers’ opposition to Apple’s privacy safeguards today gives us the answer: not likely.
  • The drumbeat of articles about courageous antitrust scholars daring to take on big tech. (Nevermind that few of them actually are antitrust scholars.) That looks an awful lot like a message from media to big tech too: pay up, or we’ll get the law to break you into pieces. Of course, that could have been driven instead by newspapers’ concerns that there’s too much concentration in America. But the News Media Alliance’s multi-year campaign for an antitrust exemption that would allow newspapers to cartelize gives us the same answer: not likely.
  • The House antitrust investigation into big tech, led by a congressman who has been doing the bidding of the News Media Alliance. That too looks an awful lot like a message.
  • The fawning story in the Times about Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic games, maker of Fortnite, who is leading an antitrust “crusade” against Apple in search of lower fees. That does look like a message to Apple. (And while I’m on this subject—funny how the article doesn’t mention the Times’ massive conflict of interest in reporting the story. For the Times is publicly supporting Epic, and demanding lower fees for their apps too. But a reader of that article wouldn’t know it.)

It has been a successful campaign so far. If the pen is mightier than the sword, it is perforce mightier than the microchip. The tech giants have already started to open their pocketbooks. It will be interesting to see how badly they cave.

Of course, there are limits to the amount of sympathy one can feel for Google or Facebook. Those companies may be better at what they do than newspapers, but they are better at doing something antisocial: the spying and manipulation that constitute modern commercial advertising. The newspapers’ fight to get cut in on the spoils is ugly, but one set of rogues deserves another.

But Apple is different. The company makes most of its money selling products that genuinely make life easier. And as the company has not tired of reminding us, the fact that its business is not mainly advertising means that its interests are more closely aligned with those of consumers when it comes to privacy than are the interests of any other player in this fight.

Which is why the newspapers’ attacks on Apple are a new low.

For a time, not competing with newspapers for advertising seemed to buy Apple some safety from the media’s antitrust crusade. But when the antitrust shakedown seems to be working against companies that wiped out your old-economy advertising business, why not extend it to one that wants to put the screws on your new-economy advertising business, and see if you can extract lower app store fees while you are at it?

Today’s antitrust movement against big tech may be many things to many people, but one thing it’s not is a progressive movement, even if some of its proponents delight in wrapping themselves in the progressive banner.

That should have been obvious to anyone watching the movement attract Trump Administration backing in assaulting what are probably the most progressive corporations ever. (It’s not normal for corporate employees to block management from accepting lucrative military contracts, and then not get fired.)

But at least now it is completely clear. For “when they tasted of the apple their shame was manifest.”