Last Wednesday, at an Open Markets Institute event in Washington, D.C., Senator Al Franken gave what Wired called “the speech big tech has been dreading.” Speaking before he was accused of sexual misconduct this week, Franken pointed out that the dominance of technology platforms gives them the power to dictate terms to media companies in a way that has serious repercussions for democracy.
“No one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t,” Franken said. “And Facebook, Google and Amazon — like ISPs — should be ‘neutral’ in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platforms.”
In Silicon Valley, these are fighting words — and they make clear just how differently many politicians now view big technology companies than they did just a couple years ago. At least until the very end of his second term, President Obama often acted like technology companies could do no wrong. Remember “South by South Lawn”? Now, suddenly — and without much nuance — technology companies are getting blamed for everything from sex trafficking to the presidency of Donald Trump.
This shift in the political winds could help the music business, which is now excited about a copyright reform process that it once regarded with some dread. To get a sense of the potential consequences, think of Franken’s speech and do a Google search for “music.” The first result is YouTube, which is a very popular destination for music; the second is “Google Play Music,” which… isn’t. Then, after displaying “top stories,” Google Play’s music service also comes up as the third and fourth results. Spotify, the most popular streaming service after YouTube, doesn’t make the first page of results. A search for “download Taylor Swift Reputation” brings up several dubious-looking MP3 sites, including one that features links to “single Slavic women,” but not Swift’s album. (Google search results can change based on the content and popularity of various sites, as well as tweaks to the company’s algorithm.) The only download stores that show up on the first page of results are Amazon and Apple — but only in ads.
Does that mean Google’s search engine is unfairly biased toward the company’s other businesses? It’s hard to say, since it discloses very little about how its search algorithm actually works. (YouTube did not respond to requests for comment.) It’s also important to note that this may not be as big a deal as it seems: If Google is using its search engine to draw music fans to its Google Play music service, it’s not going very well. But the ability of platforms to steer users has all sorts of implications.
Months ago, Spotify was accused of promoting “fake artists” to which it could pay a lower royalty rate, which the company says it doesn’t do. Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music, has said that “80 percent of all of watch time is recommended by YouTube” — presumably to maximize viewer engagement. But YouTube could also recommend content owned by certain companies.
For almost two decades, there wasn’t much interest in regulating technology companies — especially when it came to their interactions with the media companies they framed as old and in the way. Politicians, especially centrist Democrats, saw companies like Facebook and Google as sources of solutions, not problems. Now Silicon Valley is playing defense, and those companies are going to have to make some difficult decisions about how much regulation they can live with. In early November, the Internet Association, which represents technology companies, issued a statement in support of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which would impose some liability on them. Activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation objected to this compromise — which could be the first of several cracks in the anti-copyright coalition.
Technology lobbyists also have bigger problems than anything that involves the music business. For years, their three main issues were net neutrality, copyright and immigration — which could all be framed as moral causes. Now, just as all of these are heating up — Trump’s FCC wants to undo net neutrality, copyright legislation is being proposed and immigration is getting America First-ed — other problems have emerged. The Missouri Attorney General is investigating Google, and the European Union is preparing its second case. The EU is enacting strong new privacy legislation, and Americans are realizing how inadequate ours is. Just the vulnerability of social media to foreign influence could occupy an army of lobbyists on its own.
All of this raises the odds that the music business will be able to get the kind of copyright reform it needs. It’s not that simple, of course: Restaurants and radio stations still want to pay as little as possible for music. But they simply don’t capture the imagination of the American public the way technology companies do. Radio companies have more influence in Washington, D.C. than most people assume, simply because they operate in every Congressional district, but it’s hard to imagine politicians visiting iHeartMedia the way they drop in at Google.
It’s ironic that at least some of the efforts to regulate major technology companies involve the issue of platform fairness, which isn’t exactly unknown in the media business. Politicians have spent years looking into the influence of major labels on radio, often for good reason. Now it’s Silicon Valley’s turn to face the music.