Attacking Free Speech Doesn’t Just Hurt Tech: America Must Stay True to Its First Amendment Principles

The First Amendment is one of the cornerstone principles that define this nation. There is no such thing as freedom if we cannot speak freely.   

Today, however, our nation seems less interested in protecting free speech than at any time I can recall. Major advocates of free speech like the ACLU are wavering in their support of our First Amendment, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are fighting for the government to censor online speech.  

Continue reading “Attacking Free Speech Doesn’t Just Hurt Tech: America Must Stay True to Its First Amendment Principles”

Dropping George Will Is a Bad Way To Arrest That Subscriber Decline, Post-Dispatch

Even as such things are becoming commonplace, the sacking of George Will’s syndicated column by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sets a new low in mainstream journalism’s race to the bottom.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the situation, Will wrote a piece (“Colleges become the victims of progressivism”) in which he ridiculed, in the context of a new Education Department mandate, some phony math and dubious cases being cited to demonstrate that America suffers from a rape epidemic.

Will’s larger point was that the DOE mandate threatens the loss of federal funding to colleges that do not institute a “preponderance of the evidence” standard when adjudicating allegations of sexual assault.  This, he wrote, would inevitably lead to costly litigation “against institutions that have denied due process to males they accuse of what society considers serious felonies.”

Elsewhere in his article, Will also points to the growth of campus speech codes and the idea, on some campuses, of the need for “trigger warnings” on college textbooks that feature language or concepts as might “victimize” unwary students.  Will contrasts these developments – none of which are much resisted by college faculty and administrations – often they’re welcomed – with those same colleges’ anger at another prospective DOE program, a rating system that would compare schools on things like graduation rates, student debt, and earnings after graduation.

Will concludes his piece with this: “What government is inflicting on colleges and universities, and what they are inflicting on themselves, diminishes their autonomy, resources, prestige and comity.  Which serves them right.  They have asked for this by asking for progressivism.”

So that’s it.  That’s what the piece is about.  But not to one Tony Messenger, the editorial page editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  To Mr. Messenger, Will’s column “was offensive and inaccurate,” for which apologies were in order, and sufficient grounds for dropping his column from the paper permanently.  And what, precisely, was the offensive and inaccurate thing to which Messenger objected?

Well, as reported by the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, it was: “Seeing the reaction and intensity of the hurt in some of the social media and the reaction of women I know and talking to people who really were offended by the thought that sexual assault victims would seek some special victimhood – it helped seeing that response and it informed my [Messenger’s] opinion.”

Against the slim chance that anyone wonders about it, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a long record of supporting liberal and Democratic priorities, which means that Tony Messenger fits right in.  He routinely bashes the Missouri Republican Party, often harshly, and champions every liberal cause that comes his way.

Because it’s not nice to pick on the weak, it wouldn’t be right here to speak about Messenger’s abilities in and of themselves, except perhaps to say that somewhere between his brainpan and his mouth there are little walls that prevent him from making sense when speaking.  You can witness this yourself, and in fact it’s recommend just for the humor, by checking out Messenger’s interview, available on YouTube, with a fellow named Lee Presser (“A Conversation with Tony Messenger”).  Videotaped in 2012, not long after Messenger was hired, it’s almost comic how Messenger filibusters the hard questions while still managing to back himself into rhetorical cul-de-sacs.

One such is his claim that a unique feature of his paper’s editorial page setup is its insulation from the publisher.  This, because of a special editorial board that meets regularly.  Asked by Presser who sits on that board, Messenger says it’s him, two guys who report to him, plus the editor-in-chief, who Messenger reports to, and the guy the editor reports to, the publisher.

Apart from the substantive nature of this matter, and Messenger’s personal shortcomings, there are many smaller ironies.  One is that George Will is the recipient of a Pulitzer prize, named after the former owners of the St Louis Post-Dispatch.  (It and some other newspapers were purchased from Pulitzer by Lee Enterprises for $1.5 billion, a few years after which Lee Enterprises filed for bankruptcy.)

Another is the fact that, from 2010 through the end of 2012, the Post-Dispatch’s circulation dropped from 213,472 to 178,801, while the Sunday paper dropped from over 400,000 readers to 299,000.  At the same time the paper routinely excoriated Republicans and the Republican Party, which today controls both the Missouri House and Senate by more than 2-to-1 majorities.

Asked by Presser in the aforementioned YouTube video why so many people say they no longer read the paper because of its transparent political bias, Messenger’s answer (trimmed of its fat) was that such people are confused, and that they should remember they can always write letters to the editor.

Yes, that’s it exactly.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  A version of this article was first published here on The Daily Caller on June 23, 2014.

Google’s Impact on Journalism

The products and services offered by Google are well known and highly regarded.  Every day, millions of consumers around the globe visit the company’s search engine or sites like Google News or YouTube.  And for this, the company’s employees and (especially) its founders have been well compensated.

But there’s another side to Google that consumers know very little about.  That is Google the corporation, and the effect its business practices are having on competitors, and most dramatically on the professional media, news and entertainment alike.

In important measure, people know little about Google the corporation because news stories and commentary about the company’s business practices are mostly confined to industry trade publications, or technology and economic journals.

Even the public policy issues that the company addresses are complex, and hard to write about in a way that wouldn’t cause most readers’ eyes to glaze over.  How, for instance, would one popularize such issues as the district and appellate court rulings in Viacom v. YouTube, or the FCC’s “network neutrality” proceedings, or the FTC’s recently concluded investigation of Google’s search and advertising policies?

So it’s easy to understand why the public at large doesn’t know much about Google’s role in these matters, but book and newspaper publishers do.  So too do movie studios and Google’s competitors in the online travel business, to name just a few.

And what all of these other companies know is that Google’s scale, business tactics, and aggressive lobbying amount to a distinct threat to their very existence.  A single datum provides a startling view of the challenge: Through the first half of 2012, Google by itself took in more ad dollars than the entire U.S. print media, magazines and newspapers, excluding only the ads on newspaper websites, which even today generate only about 25 percent as many ad dollars as print advertising.

The ways in which Google uses its dominance in search to monetize, by corralling and aggregating (without permission) the content of others, is a story that is long in telling.  But a common feature, as stated in a White Paper submitted to the FTC in 2011 by The Media Institute, is that Google’s “main search page biases Google News results over results of news organizations and other publishers.”

Nor is this the perception and complaint just of American publishers.  On June 25, a coalition of hundreds of Europe’s leading publishers urged the European Commission, which is the EU’s antitrust authority, to  reject outright some remedies that Google offered to end an investigation by the Commission of the same kind of practices the company is accused of by publishers on this side of the Atlantic.

As summarized by GigaOm, “Google is accused of surreptitiously favoring its own services in its search results, locking advertisers onto its platform and scraping content from rival, subject-specific search engines.”

In elaboration of the European publishers’ rejection of Google’s proposals, the president of AEDE, a Spanish association of daily newspapers, put it this way: “In short, Google’s proposed remedies do not address the overarching problems and fundamental harms that Google’s conduct causes in search-related markets and none of them aims at restoring effective competition….  In some ways, they might actually make matters worse by entrenching dominance and misleading consumers.”

Here, as in Europe, the principal venues of appeal for those being harmed by Google’s business practices are the antitrust authorities, which is to say quasi-political bodies.  And that’s a problem. In this country, the FTC has already dismissed an opportunity to do a full antitrust review of Google, in part, we can speculate, because there is no great public support for the news media generally.

Indeed, a Pew poll, released on July 11, found that only 28 percent of respondents believe that journalists “contribute a lot,” down from 38 percent four years ago.  And a Gallup poll, published on June 17, revealed that only 23 percent of the public have “overall confidence” in newspaper and TV news.

Given this lowly rating by their own customers, one might be tempted to dismiss the news media’s cannibalization by Google as something they had coming to them, and there’s an element of truth in that, as with the special contempt for them that the media have inculcated in conservatives and Republicans.

But there’s a much larger issue involved in Google’s anti-competitive behavior, and that is whether this (or any) country will in future have a robust and profitable news media industry, marked not by opinion but by objective news, investigative, and feature reporting.  Surely people of all political persuasions can agree that blogs and content aggregators are not going to fill that role.

At a time when the Internet is obliging mainstream news outlets to publish online, it is not yet clear whether a way can be found to make up, in that process, for the necessary advertising revenue that once came their way – a problem not confined just to the legacy media but to prospective newer entrants in the news reporting business as well.

And it is at this crossroad where Google, the company whose fraying motto is “Don’t be evil,” may prove decisive.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  This piece was first published in USA Today on July 19, 2013, under the headline "Beware of Google’s Power."

Putting a Coda to the Myth of That YouTube Video

The congressional Benghazi hearings may leave room for debate about why the Administration acted as it did before, during, and after the tragedy, but they surely put to rest any lingering claims that the attack was a consequence of that YouTube video, “Innocence of Muslims."

As noted here and here, this was not the first time people rushed to link a murderous act with controversial speech, and it won’t be the last.  But it should stand as an abiding lesson for producers and consumers of the news, and for commentators of all stripes, to be deeply skeptical of similar claims in the future.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Free Speech and That YouTube Video

In an age when, for many, political correctness (not to mention political opportunism) trumps free speech, one should be wary of assertions that specific kinds of speech have precipitated criminal conduct.

We saw false claims like this in the case of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), when such as the New York Times’ resident shrieker, Paul Krugman, immediately tied the crime to Republican and Tea Party rhetoric.  And we have seen it again in the wake of the murders in Libya, and the riots in other Arab countries.

The immediate reaction to the killing of the American ambassador, as announced by the State Department and the White House, was that it was an Arab reaction to a cheesy video distributed by YouTube called “Innocence of Muslims.”

Reminiscent of the Giffords shooting, though, it’s now clear that the YouTube video had nothing to do with the murders in Libya, and that if it had anything to do with subsequent anti-American demonstrations elsewhere in the region it was likely because of the prominence the American government assigned to the video in the first place.

Apart from the absence of any connection between the Libyan murders and the YouTube video, there is the question of what should be the reaction of American officials and American citizens, media included, if and when something like a YouTube video does lead directly to murderous acts here or abroad?

The answer to that question may not resonate with everyone, but it’s not difficult either.  All that’s needed is some knowledge of the First Amendment and of First Amendment case law.  If the speech in question is protected, as was clearly the case with the YouTube video, the correct response would be to regret the loss of life and to demand that those responsible be brought to justice.  If, as with “Innocence of Muslims,” the offending material was of little or no value in its own right, criticism of the material might also be appropriate.

But in all events – and particularly where the crimes committed were in foreign lands without free speech – it should also be said by our public officials that ours is a country that greatly values and protects the free-speech rights of individuals, even when such speech gives legitimate offense.

The administration’s early blaming of the Libyan killings on the YouTube video was either a rush to judgment or, worse, an attempt at the kind of misdirection as would guide the ensuing commentary away from questions about the success of U.S. policy in the Mideast and/or the adequacy of our intelligence and security operations.

Perhaps the single worst aspect of this affair was the attempt by the White House to persuade Google (which owns YouTube) to take down the offending video.  The administration’s press spokesman, Jay Carney, says they asked Google only to look into whether the video complied with YouTube’s terms of service, as though that is a distinction with a difference.

It is not, of course, and Google resisted the arm twisting and kept the “Innocence of Muslims” trailer on YouTube, though the company did take it down in a few Arab countries, a call that was and is entirely its to make.

The hounding of free speech is done these days not only by the right, but also, and more dangerously, by the left and by the adoption and overuse of terms like “hate speech.”  The threat in this becomes a matter of greater concern when public officials get in on the act.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Defending the First Amendment in the 21st Century

By guest blogger HAROLD FURCHTGOTT-ROTH, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

On September 11 and the following days, violent mobs attacked Americans and American property in Cairo, Benghazi, and cities throughout the Middle East.  Americans were murdered.  Embassies were ransacked.  Americans in the region, and even here at home, were threatened.

Many innocent victims have fallen in the path of recent violence; the First Amendment should not be among them.  Make no mistake: The violence around the world is aimed not at our country as an economic power, but at America as the champion of free speech.  Make America cower in fear, make us seek to silence unpopular voices, make us censor speech, and the First Amendment is not only destroyed.  So too is America.

America was founded not to allow mobs to destroy everything in their path, but for the opposite effect.  America is the triumph of the individual over the government, and with it the triumph of individual views, individual speech, and even repugnant individual views.  In America, we are protected from mob rule.  Those who truly hate America seek to destroy that triumph of the individual.  To see those who would destroy America, simply look at the mobs on television.

The motivations for each member of a violent mob need not be the same.  Some individuals may have a long-standing hatred of America.  Others may have been stirred to violence by an incendiary speech.  In the demonology of anti-American violence, the date September 11 is an unlikely coincidence.

But we in America have been repeatedly told a different story for the cause of violence against us.  We are told that the violence was sparked not by general anti-Americanism but by one video, supposedly made in America, and posted on one website.  The purportedly offending video was not produced by our government or placed on a government website.  So we are told, and perhaps even expected to believe, that a single video was the flame that ignited millions of people to protest, sometimes violently, against the United States.  The very story is an offense not merely to common sense but to the First Amendment.

The facts don’t support the story.  The Internet has more than 600 million websites, or about one for every 10 people in the world.  YouTube alone, the site of the allegedly offensive video, has more than 100 million videos.  For nearly 20 years, the Internet has made available more than enough content to offend just about anyone.  Yet over the same period, even the most virulently anti-American groups have not rationalized violence against America based solely on the content of a specific website.  Not until now.

Also troubling is the response of our government.  A clever government would not be ensnared in debates over the contents of documents or the views of individuals.  But rather than steer clear of judgments that impinge the First Amendment, our government has, likely unintentionally, fallen into a trap of taking positions that at best are troubling for the First Amendment.

For example, our embassies and even the State Department have issued statements that place our government in the awkward position of having opinions about the content of videos and even the intent of individuals.  Before the initial attack on September 11, the Cairo embassy issued the following statement: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings….”  The statement begs the questions of “Which efforts” and “Which individuals?”  The answers to these questions are not positions that our federal government should be taking.

Two days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did little better when she stated: “To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible.  It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage.  But as we said yesterday, there is no justification – none at all – for responding to this video with violence.”

First, Secretary Clinton appears to conclude that the video was in fact the cause of the violence.  Are we really to believe that but for that video, no violence would have occurred, no Americans would have been murdered, and peace would prevail in the world?

Second, while she is careful to state that it is her personal view that the video is “disgusting and reprehensible,” Secretary Clinton finds it difficult to separate her personal views from the views of the Office of the Secretary of State, an office that now appears to have views about the content of at least one video.

Perhaps even more troubling is the slippery slope the government places itself on when it comments on the content of publications, whether videos, books, magazines, newspapers, or Internet sites.  Even if the First Amendment permitted such governmental review and judgment – which it does not – does our government want to be in the position of having views about videos?

Not all offensive videos are low-budget and of poor quality.  The 1915 Hollywood film “Birth of a Nation” is repugnant in many ways.  It is commercially available on the Internet.  Does our government have a view about this movie, or any of the other of hundreds of millions of videos on the Web? 

Rather than proudly trumpet the First Amendment, the beacon of hope around the world for countless downtrodden people, including those who cannot practice religion at home, Secretary Clinton seems mildly apologetic about it: “I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day.”

Yet people around the world fully understand why the United States does not “prevent these kind of reprehensible videos.”  There is no mystery.  The answer is not technology.  The answer is the First Amendment, at the core of our national values.  When the day comes that America submits to mob rule and begins censoring speech, America will have been destroyed.  And with it, the hopes and aspiration of people around the world who yearn for nothing more than the protection of the First Amendment, rights that are present nowhere else in the world.

In recent days, anti-American riots have continued around the world, purportedly aimed at one video.  International figures, even some considered “allies” of the United States, have asked us to prosecute those involved in the video.  President Morsi of Egypt is one of those leaders.  The head of Hezbollah in Lebanon has asked for continued protests against the United States over the video.

Amazingly, practically every American has seen images of a man, purported the producer of the offending video, embalmed in clothes and in police custody.  News reports tell of government officials looking into the details of the offending video.  Is this possible under the First Amendment?

One might expect ordinary Americans to stand up in outrage to the demands of foreign mobs to dictate censorship in America.  The First Amendment is under attack not from home but from abroad. 

In 1952, after being interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, one of the most powerful plays in the American canon.  It tells the story of individuals standing up to mobs and associated intimidation. 

But the reaction today is largely silence.  Many Americans join the mob.  Government officials denounce the video.  Law enforcement officials interrogate people associated with the video.  Media accounts rarely comment on the rights of individuals.

It is not merely the American media that have been silent.  The voices of America’s political leadership have provided no full-throated defense of the First Amendment.  We should not apologize for it.  We should not shrink from it.  What distinguishes America and what makes us the envy of the rest of the world is the First Amendment.  We should be proud of it.  When our loyal and dedicated government servants are murdered abroad, and murdered purportedly for America’s First Amendment, we should at least mention the liberties they helped protect.

President Lincoln in 1863 noted that the Civil War was a test of “whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”  At the time, he was speaking of the proposition that all men were created equal.  Today, he might speak of whether a nation conceived and dedicated to the First Amendment can long endure.  We are engaged in that war now.  And we are not yet winning.


Mr. Furchtgott-Roth can be reached at  The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute’s Board, contributors, or advisory councils. 

Google and the Media

The Wall Street Journal was the first to report, in June, that Google was about to be served with subpoenas as part of an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into “whether the Internet giant has abused its dominance in Web-search advertising.”  If the FTC gets around to asking (under subpoena and in confidence) what media companies think about that allegation, they better come prepared to stay awhile.

This, because although you won’t find many media companies willing to say so publicly, Google is roundly feared and detested, and for good reason.  Google dominates the online advertising market, “by skimming away the earnings of media companies as it scrapes up their content, denying them of the scale that would be required for effective competition with the gatekeeper to the Internet.”

This and other observations are among the findings in a white paper submitted to the FTC by The Media Institute last week.  Titled “Google and the Media: How Google Is Leveraging Its Position in Search To Dominate the Media Economy,” the paper amounts to an indictment of the business practices of a company that has achieved extraordinary success with consumers.

As stated in the press release: “Google has used two principal strategies for appropriating the creative content of others for their own gain.  The first, exemplified by Google News, takes content from potential competitors to launch new businesses while depriving those competitors of the revenue their original content generates….  The second strategy, exemplified by YouTube and Google Books, is to test legal limits of copyright and, when challenged, to resolve any disputes by further cementing its monopoly.”

The Institute’s white paper makes no specific recommendations to the FTC, saying only that we are confident that the Commission can “find an appropriate prospective remedy to protect competition in the media, search, online and mobile markets.”

Our commissioning and release of this paper has led some – like the excellent media reporter John Eggerton – to ask whether this isn’t sort of an unusual position for an organization like TMI to take, given our view that government ought to stay out of the marketplace generally, and the media specifically.

And the gentleman is right; it is somewhat out of the ordinary.  But it’s also the case that there’s nothing usual or ordinary about Google, or about the threat that Google presents to an entire industry – in this case the professional, for-profit media – which taken together represent something special and uniquely important in this country.  And as shown here and here, our concern with Google’s business practices predates the FTC investigation by at least three years.

More than this, we would argue that the careful application of the antitrust laws is completely consistent both with capitalism and the general wisdom in keeping the government at bay in most ways.

A good parallel can be found in the Institute’s robust promotion both of freedom of speech and of strong copyright laws. We know that there is a certain tension between the two, but we think that tension can be reconciled, and that in fact these two values are the opposite sides of the same coin – valuable in their own right and vital when taken together.

And in any case, the facts here speak for themselves.  As stated in the conclusion of the white paper:

Despite its stated values to the contrary, Google has shown a willingness to exercise its monopoly power to the detriment of media companies, publishers, and journalists. These are companies ready to compete in the digital age, and prepared to rise or fall on the quality of their content and the strength of their creativity.  They face challenges that will promote innovation.  But they also face a challenge – from Google – that discourages improvement, and that transforms any advance into a setback as Google misdirects users to its own webpages, displaying the content of others and foreclosing competitors from that same aggregated content.  Absent intervention by the Commission, the future of the media economy will remain in significant danger of being dominated by a single entity that will foreclose competition.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.


Digital Technology: Double-Edged Sword

Two items in the Washington Post in the past three days point up how the relentless march of technology will affect news in the months to come – both how it is generated by the White House, and how it is reported by at least one local TV station.

President-Elect Barack Obama sees new technology as a means “to reinvigorate our democracy,” according to senior adviser David Axelrod.  And, as Chris Cillizza reported on Dec. 14, Obama is starting with the Saturday morning radio broadcast begun by Ronald Reagan in 1982.  

“The speech is still beamed out to radio stations nationwide on Saturday mornings, but now it is also recorded for digital video and audio downloads from YouTube, iTunes and the like, so people can access it whenever and wherever they want,” Cillizza reports.

It’s part of a “broader revolution” in how the Obama White House will communicate, according to Doug Sosnik, a senior aide in the Clinton Administration. "The mainframe for this White House will be the Internet, not TV," he told Cillizza.

Only two days earlier (Dec. 12.), Paul Farhi reported that WUSA-TV, Channel 9 in Washington, D.C., had reached a new labor agreement that would scrap the traditional two-person news crew of reporter and photographer.  Under the new pact, an individual “multimedia journalist” will report, shoot, and edit stories alone using digital tools.  Reporters will double as their own camera crew.  Camera operators will take on reporting tasks as well.

In the case of WUSA, however, the impetus is economic. The one-person operatives are part of a broad budget-cutting scheme under which these “multimedia journalists” will actually be paid less than current reporters.

It’s encouraging that Obama embraces digital technology and plans to use it extensively.  At the same time, it’s ironic that digital technology has siphoned viewers from broadcast television and weakened some local news operations to the point where they can only be saved by changes in news-gathering built around … digital technology.

Journalists, and the future of the media. Part II

From Johannes Gutenberg to the dawn of the Internet, the press (or the media as we now call it) has been characterized by two things: It has been one-way, and it has flowed from the few to the many.  Comes now the Internet, where everyone’s a publisher/broadcaster, and all that has changed.

As we’re seeing already, tomorrow’s media will be two-way and many to the many.  (And a generation from now, when Virtual Reality is prevalent, many to the few as well.)

A change so fundamental poses real challenges to professional journalists, because in the age of user-generated content — whether in the form of blogs, or social networking sites, or YouTubian video creations, or who knows what — many of the “stars” are likely to be what we used to think of as the audience.

In this tumultuous new world, professional journalists will not only have to share the stage with amateurs, they will have to put up with their slings and arrows, and even to defer to them in those instances, which will be legion, where some amateur’s expertise or diligence on a given subject is greater than that of the professional journalist.

And there is one other thing.  As we see even now, all of the amateurs will have opinions, and some will be able to express them very well.

Given all of this, one might ask who will want to be a professional journalist, and what, exactly, will be the role of one?  Though no one knows for sure, the answer to that last question may lie in the advantages available to the professionals.

Because they have financial resources, whole departments of reporters, vast networks of contacts, and the best equipment, professional journalists have now, and will continue to have, something the amateurs don’t — the ability to engage in the practice of gathering and reporting the news.

It follows from this that the media of the future may put a greater emphasis on thoroughness and objectivity, not necessarily out of high-mindedness or J-schoolish exhortations, but because this kind of reportage, unlike opinion and analysis, is something only they can do.

If this is in fact the future of journalism, it will mark a return to a journalistic standard that’s lately  been honored more in the breach than the observance, and it will be another example of how great societal benefits often derive from the pursuit of self-interest.

The Problem With Google

For a company whose corporate motto is “Don’t be evil,” Google has an unfortunate capacity to look past the most obvious things.

Take, for instance, its stance in favor of “net neutrality.” Insofar as this concept is more than a slogan it’s a bad idea, and especially so as a matter of policy.  Legislation like the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, for example, invites real government regulation of the Internet as a solution to an imaginary problem.

As seen in the title of the congressional legislation, the language of net neutrality proponents, always over the top, has lately taken on a kind of goofy grandeur, with some — like Save the Internet, a coalition coordinated by Free Press — trafficking in such pap as “Net neutrality, the First Amendment of the Internet.”  (Of course it is.)

But what’s the attraction in all of this for Google?

The critics’ answer is that Google wants to ensure, whatever the cost to the future development and independence of the Internet, its own dominant, and free riding, position.

Google’s approach to the problem of copyright infringement also calls into question the company’s high-mindedness.

As charged in the case of Viacom v. YouTube,  Google is accused of flagrant violation of copyrighted material on the website of its YouTube subsidiary.  Google’s defense is that it takes down offending posts after being notified, and that this is sufficient under the safe-harbor provisions of the DMCA.

But in its complaint Viacom makes a compelling case that the takedown process is an endless loop of notifications and re-postings, and that, in fact, copyright infringement is at the heart of YouTube’s business plan.

A number of observers have suggested that Viacom’s lawsuit is just an attempt to win a favorable licensing agreement, and that in the end the parties will work out some satisfactory arrangement between themselves.

Perhaps, but copyright infringement is not a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against copyright holders, and if a negotiated settlement is the result, so be it.  This said, much might be usefully clarified if the dispute goes all the way through trial.

In any case, the point is that, as with net neutrality, Google’s posture regarding copyright infringement seems to be driven more by its own interests than by any sense of a community of interests.

By the standards of those of us at The Media Institute, which is primarily a First Amendment organization, Google’s lack of any meaningful concern or action regarding freedom of speech and of the press is the most troubling aspect of the company.

We would not have this concern if Google were just a small affair, or if the legacy media were fat and sassy.  But neither is the case.  Google is a giant while newspapers, for instance, are in a fight for their very survival.

Just to establish a frame of reference, as this post is being written (midday, July 10), here are the market capitalizations of some leading media companies: Time Warner, $50B; Disney, $56B; Washington Post, $6B; Gannett, $4B; New York Times, $2B; and McClatchy, $427M. And Google’s market cap?  It is just in excess of $172B!

In other words, the market values Google more than it values Time Warner, Disney, Washington Post, New York Times, Gannett, and McClatchy put together!  In fact a lot more — 45 per cent more.

And the rub in this is that, as an historical matter, the most important players in promoting and defending the First Amendment have been Hollywood and newspapers.  Yet these are two industries much beleaguered by the Internet, of which Google is the leader.

Against this background one might expect a company determined not to be evil to mount a major effort, if not in assistance to the old media, then in lending a hand in promotion of the First Amendment. Sorry to say, Google’s record in this regard is a blank slate.

It’s in the nature of the way the world works that one can “be evil” in more than one way.  One can do it by acts of commission, and one can do it by acts of omission.  Judging by the examples above, Google does it both ways.