Jonathan Taplin misses the mark on corporate dominance in tech
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Among the many divides in Washington, add to the list a new corporate battlefront on how the tech industry should be regulated. I saw this divide play out during several events featuring Professor Jonathan Taplin, who has called for the government breakup of big tech companies.

At an event I attended in Washington, as in other appearances such as a recent ReCode panel, Taplin wove an alternative reality where tech companies follow Ayn Rand libertarian orthodoxy as evangelized by Silicon Valley’s Peter Thiel. He described a dystopian society in which employment, culture, democracy, and human existence as we know it have been put at risk by a few large tech companies. According to Taplin, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are apparently the new gatekeepers that degrade music, art, and culture, while financial tech platforms, or Fintech, he says are somehow outside regulatory scrutiny. Taplin yearns for the days when he and Martin Scorsese would get their movie ideas greenlit by the “secret society” of Hollywood studios – a time when four broadcast networks controlled TV and artists were paid what he calls a “respectable compensation.”

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I found myself agreeing with him on several broader points: wealth overall has become too concentrated, the economy is too oligopolistic, and libertarian alt-right conservatism is too prevalent. But I could not agree with Taplin’s cartoonish portrayal of the tech industry as monolithically bad for society.

 

As Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed out at his recent MIT commencement speech, tech is not a panacea and certainly has its shortcomings, but in my experience has been a means of democratizing access to information and essential services, like banking and education. I’ve advocated for strong net neutrality rules, fought big cable mergers and media consolidation, and championed media diversity. As someone who has battled for greater inclusion in financial, media and telecommunications markets, I see tech not as some kind of scourge destroying civilized society, but as a democratizing and inclusive force. For example, Taplin is wrong about Fintech companies, which must abide by numerous financial regulations and have been pioneers in bringing financial services to the underbanked. Platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube give artists direct and immediate global reach, replacing Taplin’s “secret society” days with many new ways to reach their audiences. Now Chance the Rapper can self-distribute “Acid Rap” over SoundCloud without having to bow and scrape before a corporate media executive. 

So where are these misplaced arguments coming from? There’s something deeper happening here: when I attended an event in Washington where Taplin spoke, all around me were lobbyists and lawyers representing Comcast/NBCU, News Corp, and other media companies. These were people I had known, and often opposed, for years. At one point during Taplin’s remarks, one of my long-time opponents even joked with me, “it sure is nice not to be the bad guy for once!”

This experience, and his repeated appearances around the world, demonstrated to me that Taplin’s recent barrage against tech companies is part of a big-dollar mission to revisit policy decisions and technological changes hated by publishers, movie studios, and others, who have been funding Taplin’s efforts to criticize tech companies.

For decades, a multi-billion dollar drama has raged between content creators, like movie studios or cable networks, and distributors like online or pay-TV platforms. These content companies’ copyright fights have rightly come up empty, losing in the courts and Congress. For example, their push for the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA), which would have criminalized the posting of unlicensed content online, ended with Congress pulling the bill after Internet users flooded Congress with concerns. Content company representatives are now trying a new angle – pushing the tech dominance meme through people like Taplin to revive their failed copyright arguments through an antitrust lens.

We should have a pragmatic, useful discussion about how corporate concentration negatively affects consumers’ pocketbooks every day. Howling at the moon about free digital services and pining away for the exclusive content cartels of yesteryear are not the way to get there.

David Goodfriend is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. specializing in technology, telecommunications, and media policy. He served as deputy staff secretary to President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMueller’s probe doesn't end with a bang, but with a whimper Mark Mellman: History’s judgment Congress should massively ramp up funding for the NIH MORE, media legal advisor to an FCC commissioner, and on the staff of several congressional committees. He co-founded Air America Radio and Sirius-XM’s “Left Jab” and teaches technology policy at The Georgetown University Law Center and the George Washington University Law School. Goodfriend counts Google and PayPal among his clients.


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