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Josh Bergeron: Local news outlets, governments take on technology giants

I started some time in the mid-2000s.

Interested in connecting with my friends also in American military families, I created my first social media account on a platform that seems ancient now — MySpace. Even when talking was as easy as picking up the phone, the social media platform allowed me to connect with friends who lived a few cities away in seconds by sending a message or commenting on their page. Text messaging was still in its infancy, and my parents warned me against sending too many text messages and spending money on my pre-paid cellphone too quickly. 

Facebook was the social media outlet du jour in college, allowing me to quickly and easily talk with friends back home and those in my new home. Then came Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others. There probably was a point where Yahoo, MSN or another search engine was my top choice, but I’m like most in that searches almost entirely go through Google now.

For a lot of folks, Google is just a useful way to find information and social media still is a way to connect with friends and family. On social media, you’ll find engagement and wedding photos, images of the birth of your friends’ children, high school and college graduations, political opinions and news and rumors about what’s going on in town. 

But it can be easy to miss the ways technology giants are hurting small communities like Salisbury and Rowan County when you’re not looking. News outlets, in particular, don’t see Facebook or Google as benign actors. In addition to allowing lies and half-truths to spread unchecked, there are serious concerns about the ways they’re making money and taking advantage of their users to do it.

A number of lawsuits filed last month by publishers of 125 newspapers in 11 states alleged Google and Facebook have unlawfully monopolized the digital advertising market and engaged in an illegal deal to thwart competition. AIM Media CEO Jeremy Halbreich, whose company is part of the lawsuits, cited federal and state investigations in saying the two technology giants, Facebook and Google, have monopolized the digital advertising market and restricted the monetization of local news by local news organizations.

“This has had a dramatic impact on the revenues and resources available for local news organizations,” Halbreich said in a news release. “These monopolistic practices must come to an end. It is no longer appropriate for these two platforms to profit directly from local news while publishers increasingly struggle.”

Newspapers have adapted, becoming much more than just printed products. Still, national newspaper advertising revenue plunged from $49 billion in 2006 to $16.5 billion in 2017, threatening the existence of local news, according to the complaints. Newspaper jobs are disappearing, too. Nearly 30,000 newspaper jobs across the country were eliminated from 1990 to 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s not quite as simple as digital forms of communication becoming more popular than printed ones. Facebook and Google aren’t hiring reporters in Salisbury or Rowan County any time soon. And if something isn’t done about their business practices, the future will include less robust archive of the community’s history. While it’s easy to look up old editions of the Post at the Rowan Public Library, it’s unlikely to be quite as easy decades from now to search through Facebook’s archives for things the local news missed out on or didn’t have the resources to cover. 

It’s not hard to find ways in which previous owners of the Post, the Hurley family, invested profits they generated from the newspaper back into the community during the heyday of printed newspapers. You won’t find a single dollar from Facebook or Google, however, sponsoring a youth baseball or softball team or contributing to a capital campaign for a new building.

It’s not just local news where there are serious worries. From the feds to state attorneys general, Facebook and Google are facing a range of antitrust lawsuits from governments. Among the lawsuit filers is Attorney General Josh Stein, who made North Carolina one of the states suing Google and Facebook because of monopolies they’ve created.

“When a company uses its size to thwart competition – and in the process, deny North Carolinians the advances and benefits that would come from healthy competition – I will take action,” Stein said in a December news release. “We allege that Google has used its massive size and dominant position to maintain its monopoly, and we are asking the court to repair the market for search on behalf of the millions of North Carolinians who rely on search engines.”

Stein says Facebook used its monopoly powers to stifle competition and innovation and sell “alarming amounts of user data to make money” at the expense of people who use its platform.

Republicans and Democrats differ about the reasons they’re upset with the technology giants, but there’s bipartisan support for taking action against them — proven by the fact that Trump’s Department of Justice sued the technology giants the same year as North Carolina’s Democrat attorney general. For the good of towns and cities like Salisbury, there should be broad public support, too.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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