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Lawmakers Take A Hard Look At What Google And Facebook Mean For Democracy


Washington is taking a hard look at the nation's biggest tech companies. Two in particular - Google and Facebook - were in the crosshairs of a congressional panel today. Lawmakers heard from newspaper publishers who blame the companies for lost revenues, resulting in layoffs of journalists and the closing of many publications.

NPR's Brian Naylor joins us now in the studio with more on the hearing. Hey there, Brian.


CORNISH: Why this hearing, and why focus on the news media first?

NAYLOR: The chairman of the subcommittee, Congressman David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, says this is the first of several antitrust hearings on the tech industry. Simply put, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle believe the big tech companies have gotten too big. They're too powerful. Some are wondering whether they've become anti-competitive, pointing to how they acquire rivals.

And the news media - the newspaper industry has been one of the big industries that's suffered - perhaps suffered the most. Cicilline said digital competition has pushed newspapers to the brink of extinction. And the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, put it this way.


JERROLD NADLER: Today, the vast majority of Americans consume their news online, and two online platforms have immense control over how Americans access their news sources. A single algorithm change by one of these private corporations can entirely distort what information the public shares and consumes and what revenue the publisher receives.

CORNISH: Now, there's not naming names, of course, but it sounds like he's talking about Google and Facebook.

NAYLOR: That's right.

CORNISH: So did lawmakers hear from the newspaper industry?

NAYLOR: Well, they did. A group called the News Media Alliance, which represents over 2,000 newspapers, says that the estimated value of news on Google search and Google News adds up to $4.7 billion in revenue last year. Now, Google and others dispute that number. In a statement, Google called it a back-of-the-envelope calculation that's inaccurate and that the overwhelming number of news searches did not show ads and that it ignores the value Google provides.

I should also say that neither Facebook nor Google were part of today's hearing. But the publishers say they badly need some help, that their ad revenues have fallen sharply while Google's have gone up sharply. The newspapers say the rise of digital news distribution is a potential existential threat for their industry.

And among those the panel heard from today was David Pitofsky. He's the general counsel of News Corp, which publishes The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, among others.


DAVID PITOFSKY: Many in Silicon Valley dismiss the press as old media, failing to evolve in the face of online competition. But this is wrong. We're not losing business to an innovator who has found a better or more efficient way to report and investigate the news. We're losing business because the dominant platforms deploy our news content to target our audiences to then turn around and sell that audience to the same advertisers we're trying to serve.

CORNISH: He is defining a problem, right? But what is the solution that lawmakers can actually provide here?

NAYLOR: Well, so lawmakers - members of Congress are looking at legislation called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. It would basically give the newspapers a four-year exemption from antitrust laws. And that would allow them to join together and present a united front to negotiate with Google and Facebook and see if they can get better revenue sharing, a bigger slice of the advertising pie. The papers say they're too small to negotiate deals on their own with these huge companies.

CORNISH: So in the end, does this bill stand a chance?

NAYLOR: Well, it does have bipartisan support in the House. The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins of Georgia, says it just solves the problem. So we'll see.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Thanks for your reporting.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.