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’re the app developers who want to continue to spy on you.

In this light, it’s hard not to see the calls for antitrust action that newspapers have been slinging at the tech giants as coming from the emptiness of their pocketbooks rather than the goodness of their hearts. It is the hackneyed tale of yesterday’s technology trying to use politics–and the antitrust laws–instead of excellence to survive in the market.

Readers think newspapers are in the news business; actually, their business is selling ads. But Google and Facebook do that better, because, as the Times recently noted in relation to Google parent Alphabet:

consumers interact with the company 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.

The result has been a catastrophic decline in newspaper revenues.

Rather than do what they should have done all along, which is cut the cord with advertising and build their business around a more wholesome revenue stream–one that doesn’t involve trying to manipulate their readers into buying products they don’t really want to buy–or seek public funding à la the BBC for what is after all a sacred public function, the media industry has appeared to engage in a campaign to scare the tech giants into giving media a share of their advertising revenues.

The “tech-lash” of the past decade? That looks an awful lot like a message from media to big tech: pay up, or we’ll wreck your reputation. Wasn’t that driven instead by concerns about privacy? The media’s opposition to Apple’s privacy safeguards today gives us the answer: not so much.

The drumbeat of articles about the courageous antitrust scholars daring to take on big tech (few of whom 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. Wasn’t that driven instead by concern that there’s too much concentration in America? The News Media Alliance’s multi-year campaign for an antitrust exemption that would allow newspapers to cartelize gives us the same answer: not so much.

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.

Oh, and before I forget, that fawning story in the Times about Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic games, the scrappy maker of Fortnite that is leading an antitrust “crusade” against Apple in search of lower fees? Funny how it doesn’t mention that much of the media industry, including the Times, is publicly supporting Epic, and demanding lower fees for their apps too.

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.

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.”