Saving Culture: For The Public Good

Book Review: Jonathan Taplin Move fast and Break Things: A music manager’s strategy to fight the monopoly power of Google & Co

Jonathan Taplin is one of those guys who, judged by the width of their accomplishment, seem to have more than one life at their disposal. Taplin has been a tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band and a film producer for Martin Scorsese. He served as an investment advisor to the Bass Brothers in their successful attempt to save Walt Disney Studios and as a consultant for Merrill Lynch. Now, at the age of 70, he has felt the urge to write a book in which he develops a defense strategy for the industries and artists for whom he has been working since the 1970s. The enemy against which he is fighting has appeared on stage rather recently. The book’s title says it all: Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and What It Means for All Of Us.

Google vs American Newspapers

Taplin’s concern can easily be summarized in two sets of figures. On the one hand: Newspaper Advertising Revenues from 1950 until today. As the Newspaper Association of America’s statistics show, revenues have been rising more or less steadily until the year late 1980s – this was when advertising on commercial TV-stations began to eat up newspapers’ advertising revenues. After a short period of recovery, revenues reached an all-time-high in 2000. From that point onwards, numbers have been rapidly sinking, to a level below that of the 1950s. A similar story can be told about revenues in the music industry and the movie business. A second set of numbers gives a clue about who might have taken all the money: Google’s annual revenues climbed steadily from 0,4 billion dollars in 2002 to almost 90 billion in 2016.

The old days lasted exactly until the introduction of Napster in 2000

There a real persons’ fates behind these numbers. Taplin tells the story of Levon Helm, drummer of The Band. In the old days, groups like The Band could count on financial rewards long after they had stopped publishing new music. The old days lasted exactly until the introduction of Napster in 2000 – which set the start for the ‘free’ as in ‘free beer’-approach in the consumption of cultural products. Soon thereafter, The Band members went from a decent royalty income of around $100,000 per year to almost nothing. Levon, by then seriously ill, had to start organizing concerts in early 2000 to cover his medical bills.

Don’t be evil!

One question which arises is: How can it be demonstrated that the Google’s annual revenues and the Newspaper Association of America’s statistics really relate to each other as cause and effect – and not just happen to correlate with each other as a matter of chance? One hint which Taplin provides is this one:

“Try a little experiment. Go on your Google search engine and type “watch [insert the name of your favorite movie here] free online.” What will come up are direct links to all the major pirate sites.”

Google (and other Internet intermediaries) are actively making a business out of providing access to illegal content. This, according to Taplin, does not happen by chance, but fits well into the framework of libertarian thinking to which the founders of Google, Amazon and other big players have committed themselves. Following Taplin through this part of the story almost reads like a conspiracy theory.

Without the financial and intellectual help of well-funded think tanks and advocacy groups […] none of the Internet empires would exist at its current scale.

Without the financial and intellectual help of well-funded think tanks and advocacy groups such as “Americans for Prosperity” which are devoted to anarchic and libertarian political thinking, Taplin claims, “none of the Internet empires would exist at its current scale.” A particularly infamous role in the network play the Koch brothers, who own a natural resources conglomerate with revenues of more than $100 billion per year. The Kochs are among the main supporters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to Taplin, ALEC is the principal climate-change opposition group at the state level. The initiative has also focused on opposing insurance coverage for birth control in the US; advocated laws allowing citizens the right to self-defense if they feel their property is under attack; and has given its voice to initiatives prohibiting cities from building public broadband networks. Both Google and Facebook have been members of the ALEC from 2013 onwards for some time.

Instead of “don’t be evil” (the slogan with which Google has successfully managed to be perceived as a company acting in the public’s interest), the real philosophy which seems to drive most of the managers and owners of the major US-companies (which happen to operate in the field of digital services) is an open opposition to law and government. (Tapin excludes Apple’s Steve Jobs and Tim Cook as well as Mark Zuckerberg to some extent from this general accusation.)

Monopoly power

Although fascinating, all this is not more as a side story. What stands as a general fact is that Internet intermediaries such as Google and Facebook do make a business out of giving access to music, movies and books. They do it in such a way those actors that are involved in creating and curating that very content can be easily hurt and probably actually are hurt. This must not happen necessarily in illegal ways. Google and Facebook, as Taplin points out, are de facto monopolies. Facebook strives for a monopoly over access to consumers and citizens. Once established, such a monopoly can be quite profitable: Facebook could charge publishers (who then have no other means to sell their products) for access to its 1.6 billion users! Monopoly power is also useful when it comes to manipulate public opinion. In order to fight against Anti-Piracy regulations, Google more than once relied upon the reach of the Google landing page in order to successfully start and support public campaigns.

Fighting back!

Here are some of the counter-measures Taplin proposes:

>> Antitrust-legislation should be equipped with a further-reaching rationale. Instead of only addressing issues of consumer protection, antitrust-legislation should be equipped with the mandate to fight for the public good. Taplin does not bother himself with the question if this is possible within the given constitutional frameworks. Rather, he gives compelling reasons why antitrust should be equipped in such way. It’s for preserving the arts! In a nutshell: Along with the Internet revolution, we are witnessing an inflation of content. This is because for Google and Facebook, it doesn’t make a difference whether a New York Times article or a porn site is delivered to the user. “The New York Times spends millions of dollars on its content and expects to receive premium ad rates based on the quality ‘environment’ those ads will be featured in”, writes Taplin. “But programmatic advertising [on Google or Facebook] destroys that whole value proposition.”

>> Public benefits can be gained from the fact that services provided by Internet Intermediaries are in the hands of just a few big players. (I reach more friends when all of them are on Facebook, and it’s easier for me to organize my dates when emails, calendar and other functions all have seamlessly merged into one and the same family of Google-Apps.) Therefore, regulation should not aim to destroy these monopolies, but rather treat these as “public utilities” or “public infrastructures”. This would imply that like Google & Co. should be run on the basis of licenses provided for by the state. As part of such an agreement, Taplin suggests, Google could be required to license every patent it owns for a nominal fee to any American company that asks for it. (“It would have to license its search algorithms, Android patents, self-driving car patents, smart-thermostat patents, advertising-exchange patents, Google Maps patents, Google Now patents, virtual-reality patents, and thousands of others.”)

>> Concerning copyright protection, Internet intermediaries must shoulder greater responsibility for fighting illegal content on their sites. Taplin: “An amendment to the law needs to be written, stating that once a takedown notice has been filed, it is the responsibility of the website to keep the content down” (“take down, stay down”). Concerning fair use, an institution such as “the Library of Congress should issue a set of guidelines […].When a YouTube user uploads a clip (asserting fair use) of a piece of work that Content ID identifies as being blocked by the copyright holder, the clip would be sent to a human screener employed by YouTube for evaluation […].If the clip does not meet the Library of Congress guidelines, it would stay blocked.”

These are rather concrete proposals, worth being discussed. The floor is open!