How Google and Facebook Are Monopolizing Ideas

From The Wall Street Journal:

In early May Google banned bail-bond companies from advertising on its platforms. Such companies profit from “communities of color and low income neighborhoods when they are at their most vulnerable,” it explained in a blog post. They use “opaque financing offers that can keep people in debt for months or years.”

That Google can ban ads from an industry that offends its values is not, by itself, noteworthy. Media companies have long decided what content or ads to carry for the same reason. The difference is that even after decades of consolidation, no media company enjoys a U.S. market share as dominant as Google’s in Internet search (close to 90%) or Facebook Inc.’s in social networking. Like earlier bans on payday-loan ads, Google’s bail-bond ad ban, which Facebook copied the next day, effectively kicked an entire industry out of a major advertising channel.

The debate over whether Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., and Facebook are too big usually revolves around economics: Do they suppress competition for goods and services? The bail-bond ad ban raises a different, and potentially more troubling, possibility: that they also undermine competition for values and ideas. While Google and Facebook claim to be neutral platforms connecting users, advertisers and content providers, decisions about which ads to ban and which content to delete or reclassify are inherently value-laden, even when those values are embedded in an algorithm.

Data monopolies “can actually be more dangerous than traditional monopolies,” Maurice Stucke, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville specializing in antitrust, wrote earlier this year in Harvard Business Review. “They can affect not only our wallets but our privacy, autonomy, democracy, and well-being.”

Bail bonds aren’t a sympathetic industry. For a steep fee, agents agree to pay the court’s required bail if the client doesn’t show up for a court date. They are, however, legal and, in most states, regulated. And the industry says it serves low-income and minority clients because they are caught up in the criminal-justice system without the means to post bail on their own.

Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, whose members insure bail agents, says Google gave the industry no opportunity to comment on or appeal the ban. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment. Facebook did consult with both the industry and criminal-justice-reform groups after announcing its ban, a spokesman said.

Bail-bond agents used to advertise in the yellow pages, but as the public abandoned phone books for Google, so did the industry. “There are just no other options,” Mr. Clayton said. The ban doesn’t extend to regular search results, but it makes it harder for individual companies to stand out.

Conservatives tend to see tech companies’ progressive leanings at work in what gets banned or reclassified—for example, Facebook’s labeling of videos by two prominent supporters of President Donald Trump as “unsafe.” Bail bonds and payday loans have long been targets of progressive activist groups.

But as the companies come under growing pressure to police their platforms and weed out “fake news,” a growing range of content gets banned, labeled or deleted for often opaque or arbitrary reasons. ProPublica and Reveal, both nonprofit news publications, have had content dealing with hate groups and immigrant children, respectively, deleted or rejected by Instagram or Facebook. Video artists complain of viewership and ads being restricted because their content violated YouTube’s community standards.

Unhappy users, advertisers and content providers wouldn’t have as much to complain about if Google (which bought YouTube in 2006) and Facebook (which acquired Instagram in 2012) had strong competitors to which they could switch.

Absent such competition, expect pressure for the government to regulate it. But that’s a slippery slope. Politically appointed overseers may simply replace the companies’ judgments with their own. For that reason the Federal Communications Commission long ago gave up policing the nation’s airwaves for fairness.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal 

17 thoughts on “How Google and Facebook Are Monopolizing Ideas”

  1. 1- No, they are not monopolizing anything. Nobody is forced to use either and I don’t.

    2- Facebook did find sections of the Declaration to be offensive…

    …and backtracked when called on it.

    There are many trying to suppress divergent thought and they may still succeed but if they do it won’t be because of Google or Facebook. They are just followers, not leaders.

  2. The WSJ article excerpt fails to acknowledge the distinction between paid advertising and organic search results driven by SEO. Banning an industry from paid advertising doesn’t stop them from showing up in search results, but it does make it harder for an abusive or fly-by-night brand to show up on the first page of results!

    SEO as a marketing tactic requires a brand to invest much more time and quality content than paid advertising, in the current search and social media environments. So people who need a bail bond provider will still be able to find them via Google search, and they will have a better chance of clicking on a relatively reputable provider than they do now, if they’re not tech-savvy enough to skip over the links marked “Ad”.

    Here’s the Google announcement:

    Note the quote: “According to Gina Clayton, executive director of the Essie Justice Group, “This is the largest step any corporation has taken on behalf of the millions of women who have loved ones in jails across this country. Google’s new policy is a call to action for all those in the private sector who profit off of mass incarceration. It is time to say ‘no more.’””

    Here’s another article about it, since I hit the paywall on WSJ:

    • The paywall is a bit halfhearted. I also hit it but when I copied the article’s headline into a Google search and then clicked on the WSJ result the full article appeared. It wasn’t really worth the effort though, everything important had already been quoted by PG.

  3. Such companies profit from “communities of color and low income neighborhoods when they are at their most vulnerable,” it explained in a blog post.

    Good for them. Let those folks stay in jail while the whites, Asians, and people from high income neighborhoods post bail and get out.

  4. Monopolizing ideas? Uh, just how is that possible? Ideas come from people’s brains. No way to stop all those neurons out there from firing at will.

    Sheesh… Looks like WSJ ADS is now being extended to FB and Google.

  5. Good thing the WSJ isn’t part of a colossal global media organization made up of 100s of newspapers and magazines and radio stations and television channels all pushing a similar idea or this would sound silly.

  6. So what does Google think they’re accomplishing with this ban? Do they think it’s better that poor people have to sit in jail because they have no way to make bail? So only the rich will ever get out on bail. How elitist.

    • As I noted in another comment, a ban on paid ads does not affect organic search placement. It just means the first four results slots don’t go to the highest bidders, regardless of the company age, history, or legitimacy.

      Instead, the top results the searcher sees will be companies that have put in the time and halfway decent business practices to build up good reviews, reliable content, and quality (not paid for) back-links.

      To see what this means in practice, go do a Google search for “bail bond” (since the ban hasn’t gone into effect yet) and then a search for “payday loan” (since payday loan companies have been banned from their add network since 2016).

      • We don’t want payday loans because they might be used to pay a bondsman to get some person of color or resident of a poor neighborhood out of jail. The two go together.

      • You’ve kind of missed my point.

        Google is doing this because these mean, nasty predators are picking on poor people, but these “mean, nasty predators” are the only choice many people have. Since I don’t see Google stepping up and offering to help these people make bail, this is a “feel good” move by Google. They can point to this as proof that they’re caring and compassionate.

        What that really makes them is hypocrites.

  7. Oh, the poor folks will still get bail. They’ll just be getting it from Joey the Loan Shark, who’ll break their legs if they don’t pay.

    • Tom, if you do a Google search for “payday loan” you’ll see exactly what impact this will have on the bail bond industry, and poor peoples’ ability to find bail bond services via Google. Payday loan vendors have been banned from the ad network since 2016.

  8. Oh look – another old media story trying to bash new media.

    Because old media would *never* dream of trying to manipulate information, ideas, or opinions. 🙂

    • In fairness, back in the day it was a lot harder for a sole proprietor to manipulate opinions nationwide. People aren’t scared of Google and Facebook because they’re doing things that no one else has done–it’s that they can do them on an unheard-of scale.

      • Back in the day there were less people and most of them were voiceless.

        The real issue is that the tech companies have given a voice and reach to the masses. Whether on blogs, in comment forums, or ebooks, ideas have far more reach that ever. Global, even.

        The reach is particularly important because it breaks the gatekeeper power the media companies have grown used to over the centuries. They no longer have their own “monopolies” on which ideas get distributed by choosing what is “newsworthy”

        “Freedom of the press is limited to those that own one.”

        No longer true and it really grates on them.

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