On Tuesday, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee grilled media experts about potential antitrust damage that big technology platforms wielding monopoly power like Google are meting out to traditional news companies. It is just the latest chapter in the saga of Silicon Valley’s woes amid a rising call for federal regulation of tech giants. At the same time, for conservatives who are usually resistant to government regulation, it raises this important question: what do we value most?
On the monopoly issue, journalists have a valid concern. Google makes about more than $4 billion per year in ad revenue by linking to news content produced by news sites. Meanwhile, print newspapers, many of which have been producing that content, have been going out of business at a stunning rate. Supporters of tech platforms counter by saying that online news provides a new global reach for news producers and creates opportunities for more innovative forms of news reporting. They also say a free market by definition will obviously yield both winners as well as losers. Newspapers are simply the losers.
This is just the opening volley in a major antitrust attack on Silicon Valley companies that up to now seem impervious to criticism. In addition to the Judiciary Committee’s far-reaching investigation, the Department of Justice is also specifically looking at Google, while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been tasked to investigate Amazon for possible illegal, anti-competitive conduct.
Antitrust allegations are just one of several problems that tech companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are facing. They have also faced scrutiny for violating the data privacy of their citizen users. Most pertinent to Christian communicators, though, is the uncontroverted pattern of viewpoint suppression committed by these companies against biblical worldview content, stretching back years. Six years ago, through NRB’s John Milton Project for Free Speech, I suggested a Free Speech Charter for the Internet to curb the trend that was already building back then. Things have not changed. This week, Project Veritas reported that the social media site Pinterest has been internally marking Christianity-related search terms like “bible verses” and “christian easter” as “brand unsafe” and putting them on its “Sensitive Terms List,” which impacts how the auto-complete function works in the search bar.
And that brings us back to the appropriateness of the federal government regulating these private, gatekeeper platforms that control, and sometimes intentionally strangle, our internet communications. Of course, some federal initiatives like the “Fairness Doctrine” have proved to be harmful to free speech. Eventually the folly of that approach was realized and abandoned under the Reagan administration. On the other hand, there have been numerous regulations that have served the interest of NRB members, such as the FCC rule that airing Christian programing would satisfy broadcasters’ “public service” obligation; the FCC’s passage of “Must Carry” that ensures that local programming – including faith-based content – must be carried on cable networks; and the FCC’s more recent adoption of NRB’s proposal to allow nonprofit stations to overtly raise funds on the air for other “third party” ministries.
So, what do Christian broadcasters and communicators value most? Well-reasoned political philosophies are helpful and even arguably essential to a well-informed electorate. But in the end, for those who are called to communicate the Gospel and to relate its truth to the important issues of the day, the highest policy value should be nothing less than advocacy for access to every available platform. Arguments over who should control the technological doors of expression, including biblical expression, should not obscure the more important point that those doors should be opened rather than closed.
By Craig Parshall, General Counsel, National Religious Broadcasters