Facebook and Google effectively control the new media economy with innovative products that have become ubiquitous and essential to our daily lives.
So far, policymakers have been reluctant to regulate these entities and risk stifling innovation. But the tide seems to be shifting as the public becomes increasingly worried about harmful content and monopolistic behaviors of these digital giants. Policymakers are finding that the legitimate concerns about massive breaches of privacy, unchecked piracy, algorithmic bias and the devastating impact they have had on media diversity and inclusion can no longer be ignored.
I share the concerns about government regulations stifling innovation. However, I believe some additional policing is warranted, particularly when it comes to ensuring media diversity.
These powerful internet monoliths now control the advertising revenue that is the lifeblood of the broadcast and print media industries and the necessary ingredient for online sustainability. And, the harm is multiplied by the legal immunities they enjoy for most piracy and copyright infringement that occurs on their platforms — resulting in small independent and multicultural media companies and local journalism being strip mined and decimated. All while diverse new entrants struggle to reach an audience large enough to achieve profitability or to monetize their work when the Google/Facebook duopoly sucks up all the ad revenue.
The lack of media diversity and local journalism is a national crisis that is exacerbating social and economic divisions and magnifying the overall lack of cultural competency. While making up over 40 percent of the population, people of color have no significant ownership in the new media economy that represents over 20 percent of the U.S. economy. Even worse, new media has turbocharged the heated discourse that fans the flames of hatred and division and fuels culture wars that undermine efforts to build bridges between different communities. And the small independent and diverse media outlets needed to foster richer and more open local community and civic engagement are being decimated. When people of color don’t see positive stories about their respective communities, it stifles their dreams and aspirations, especially children from black and brown and rural communities across this nation.
Congress is thus faced with a conundrum where greater responsibility from these internet companies is needed, but effective regulations are difficult to craft and could potentially stifle innovation.
One answer would be to follow the model set by the FCC, which enforces “public interest” standards to govern the business practices of traditional broadcast and telecom companies. As pointed out by one expert commentator, “this concept of establishing standards to protect the public interest has a long, well-established tradition in the realm of the governance of traditional media.”
Many experts would argue against Congress enacting legislation granting the FCC the authority to develop and enforce a public interest standard against digital intermediaries. An alternative approach is for Congress to instead establish a bipartisan task force for this purpose. The task force would then work with key stakeholders on all sides of these media and tech accountability issues to develop recommendations for consensus-based public interest standards and best practices that can be voluntarily adopted.
Properly developed and applied, these public interest standards would make the digital intermediaries take proactive steps to protect consumer interests, encourage diversity, and work to ensure the survival of small independent and multicultural media stakeholders. It would also limit their ability to manipulate which content the public sees and govern broad areas like censorship, privacy, and copyright infringement on their platforms.
Media diversity and other aspects of tech accountability are not partisan issues — indeed nearly 80 percent of Americans believe internet platforms should be subject to the kinds of rules that govern media and broadcast companies. That is why my organization, the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association, recently worked with both Democrat and Republican members to introduce resolutions in both the House and Senate calling on Congress to reaffirm its commitment to media diversity and inclusion. We now urge that the imposition of a similar public interest standard to be included in the tech accountability debate and invite the public, both liberals and conservatives, to join our effort.
Our goal in proposing a public interest standard is not to impede innovation or undermine the internet economy. It is to find a reasonable, middle-ground solution where progress and innovation can thrive, but the public interest is protected.
My primary concern is the survival of small independent and multicultural media stakeholders and the media diversity critical to ensuring the economic, social and political stability of our democracy. However, also at stake is a host of societal issues such as privacy, piracy, data and copyright protection, selective censorship and algorithmic bias and manipulation. These are all important concerns that go well beyond notions of consumer price or choice.
David Morgan is co-founder and president of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association, which has 3,000 members. Follow MMCA @mmcadc.