From the New Yorker, August 28:
What Big Tech’s monopoly powers mean for our culture.
On the night of November 7, 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes’s wife, Lucy, took to her bed with a headache. The returns from the Presidential election were trickling in, and the Hayeses, who had been spending the evening in their parlor, in Columbus, Ohio, were dismayed. Hayes himself remained up until midnight; then he, too, retired, convinced that his Democratic opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, would become the next President.
Hayes had indeed lost the popular vote, by more than two hundred and fifty thousand ballots. And he might have lost the Electoral College as well had it not been for the machinations of journalists working in the shady corners of what’s been called “the Victorian Internet.”Chief among the plotters was an Ohioan named William Henry Smith. Smith ran the western arm of the Associated Press, and in this way controlled the bulk of the copy that ran in many small-town newspapers. The Western A.P. operated in tight affiliation—some would say collusion—with Western Union, which exercised a near-monopoly over the nation’s telegraph lines. Early in the campaign, Smith decided that he would employ any means necessary to assure a victory for Hayes, who, at the time, was serving a third term as Ohio’s governor. In the run-up to the Republican National Convention, Smith orchestrated the release of damaging information about the Governor’s rivals. Then he had the Western A.P. blare Hayes’s campaign statements and mute Tilden’s. At one point, an unflattering piece about Hayes appeared in the Chicago Times, a Democratic paper. (The piece claimed that Hayes, who had been a general in the Union Army, had accepted money from a soldier to give to the man’s family, but had failed to pass it on when the soldier died.) The A.P. flooded the wires with articles discrediting the story.Once the votes had been counted, attention shifted to South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana—states where the results were disputed. Both parties dispatched emissaries to the three states to try to influence the Electoral College outcome. Telegrams sent by Tilden’s representatives were passed on to Smith, courtesy of Western Union. Smith, in turn, shared the contents of these dispatches with the Hayes forces. This proto-hack of the Democrats’ private communications gave the Republicans an obvious edge. Meanwhile, the A.P. sought and distributed legal opinions supporting Hayes. (Outraged Tilden supporters took to calling it the “Hayesociated Press.”) As Democrats watched what they considered to be the theft of the election, they fell into a funk.“They are full of passion and want to do something desperate but hardly know how to,” one observer noted. Two days before Hayes was inaugurated, on March 5, 1877, the New York Sun appeared with a black border on the front page. “These are days of humiliation, shame and mourning for every patriotic American,” the paper’s editor wrote.History, Mark Twain is supposed to have said, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Once again, the President of the United States is a Republican who lost the popular vote. Once again, he was abetted by shadowy agents who manipulated the news. And once again Democrats are in a finger-pointing funk.Journalists, congressional committees, and a special counsel are probing the details of what happened last fall. But two new books contend that the large lines of the problem are already clear. As in the eighteen-seventies, we are in the midst of a technological revolution that has altered the flow of information. Now, as then, just a few companies have taken control, and this concentration of power—which Americans have acquiesced to without ever really intending to, simply by clicking away—is subverting our democracy.Thirty years ago, almost no one used the Internet for anything. Today, just about everybody uses it for everything. Even as the Web has grown, however, it has narrowed. Google now controls nearly ninety per cent of search advertising, Facebook almost eighty per cent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about seventy-five per cent of e-book sales. Such dominance, Jonathan Taplin argues, in “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy” (Little, Brown), is essentially monopolistic. In his account, the new monopolies are even more powerful than the old ones, which tended to be limited to a single product or service. Carnegie, Taplin suggests, would have been envious of the reach of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
Taplin, who until recently directed the Annenberg Innovation Lab, at the University of Southern California, started out as a tour manager. He worked with Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, and the Band, and also with George Harrison, on the Concert for Bangladesh. In “Move Fast and Break Things,” Taplin draws extensively on this experience to illustrate the damage, both deliberate and collateral, that Big Tech is wreaking.Consider the case of Levon Helm. He was the drummer for the Band, and, though he never got rich off his music, well into middle age he was supported by royalties. In 1999, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. That same year, Napster came along, followed by YouTube, in 2005. Helm’s royalty income, which had run to about a hundred thousand dollars a year, according to Taplin, dropped “to almost nothing.” When Helm died, in 2012, millions of people were still listening to the Band’s music, but hardly any of them were paying for it. (In the years between the founding of Napster and Helm’s death, total consumer spending on recorded music in the United States dropped by roughly seventy per cent.) Friends had to stage a benefit for Helm’s widow so that she could hold on to their house.Google entered and more or less immediately took over the music business when it acquired YouTube, in 2006, for $1.65 billion in stock. As Taplin notes, just about “every single tune in the world is available on YouTube as a simple audio file (most of them posted by users).” Many of these files are illegal, but to Google this is inconsequential. Under the Digital Media Copyright Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton shortly after Google went live, Internet service providers aren’t liable for copyright infringement as long as they “expeditiously” take down or block access to the material once they’re notified of a problem. Musicians are constantly filing “takedown” notices—in just the first twelve weeks of last year, Google received such notices for more than two hundred million links—but, often, after one link is taken down, the song goes right back up at another one. In the fall of 2011, legislation aimed at curbing online copyright infringement, the Stop Online Piracy Act, was introduced. It had bipartisan support in Congress, and backing from such disparate groups as the National District Attorneys Association, the National League of Cities, the Association of Talent Agencies, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In January, 2012, the bill seemed headed toward passage, when Google decided to flex its market-concentrated muscles. In place of its usual colorful logo, the company posted on its search page a black rectangle along with the message “Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the web!” The resulting traffic overwhelmed congressional Web sites, and support for the bill evaporated. (Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, who had been one of the bill’s co-sponsors, denounced it on Facebook.)Google itself doesn’t pirate music; it doesn’t have to. It’s selling the traffic—and, just as significant, the data about the traffic. Like the Koch brothers, Taplin observes, Google is “in the extraction industry.” Its business model is “to extract as much personal data from as many people in the world at the lowest possible price and to resell that data to as many companies as possible at the highest possible price.” And so Google profits from just about everything: cat videos, beheadings, alt-right rants, the Band performing “The Weight” at Woodstock, in 1969.“I wasn’t always so skeptical,” Franklin Foer announces at the start of “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” (Penguin Press). Franklin, the eldest of the three famous Foer brothers, is a journalist, and he began his career, in the mid-nineties, working for Slate, which had then just been founded by Microsoft. The experience, Foer writes, was “exhilarating.” Later, he became the editor of The New Republic. The magazine was on the brink of ruin when, in 2012, it was purchased by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, whose personal fortune was estimated at half a billion dollars....MUCH MORE