Here Comes The Attempt To Reframe Silicon Valley As Modern Robber Barons

from the don't-buy-it dept

It’s difficult for me to read Jonathan Taplin’s cri de coeur about Google and other technology companies that have come to dominate the top tier of successful American corporations without wincing in sympathy on his behalf.

But the pain I feel is not grounded in Taplin’s certainty that something amoral, libertarian and unregulated is undermining democracy. Instead, it’s in Taplin’s profound misunderstanding of both the innovations and social changes that have made these companies not merely successful but also—for most Americans—vastly useful in enabling people to stay connected, express themselves and find the goods and services (and, even more importantly, communities) they need.

“It is impossible to deny that Facebook, Google and Amazon have stymied innovation on a broad scale,” Taplin argues in his screed. He wants Google to divest itself of DoubleClick, in theory because the search engine would be much better if it were unable to generate profits from digitized ad services. He wants Facebook to unload WhatsApp, because the world was much better when connected citizens in the developing world had to pay 10 cents for each SMS message they sent. None of this really amounts to reform and, of course, such “reforms” wouldn’t touch companies like Apple or Microsoft in the least.

What Taplin really wants isn’t to reform but to reframe. He wants us to understand current tech-company leaders as evil, or at least amoral and out of control. Toward this end, he begins his new book (a much more extended version of his Times screed) by ominously quoting Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough.”

Despite his misreading of the underlying technologies shaping today’s digital world, Taplin—founding director and now director emeritus of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab—is no dummy. He knows that if he asks ordinary internet users whether they hate or love Google or Amazon or Facebook (or whether they’ll willingly part with their new iPhones) he’s not going to get a lot of buy-in. Even under a hypothetical President Bernie Sanders, regulating Google as a monopoly wouldn’t be a meat-and-potatoes issue.

Instead, Taplin creates a counter-narrative in which American technology successes (with the notable exception of Microsoft) represent the kind of rapacious octopus-like capitalism so often caricatured by cartoonists like Thomas Nast. Google and Facebook may not hurt me in particular, but the theory he offers is that they somehow hurt America in the abstract. Taplin essentially reframes American tech success as a retelling of the oil, railroad, banking and telegraph robber-baron trusts of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But the very tech companies whose success Taplin is absolutely certain is anti-democratic were built on infrastructure and resources that, under federal law and regulation, have been highly regulated throughout his (and my) lifetime. We may disagree about what the regulations should be, but there’s little disagreement that there’s already a regulatory framework. The regulation of monopoly infrastructures—telephone and telegraph networks, in particular—were what made it possible to refrain from regulating what you said or did on those networks. Regulation at the “wire” level of the infrastructure—and at various technical levels above that—created the space for today’s innovative services that provide near-instantaneous access to, potentially, all the information in the world and all the people with whom you would want to stay in touch.

Search engines and other digital tools are, of course, highly disruptive to industries whose traditional model involved having school-age kids hawking ink and wood pulp on street corners. Like Taplin, I still believe newspaper journalism is essential to democracy. Indeed, I read Taplin’s op-ed early Sunday morning because I subscribe to the digital edition of The New York Times. We must continue to explore new ways to make this necessary journalism not merely survive, but thrive.

But it also bears mentioning that Taplin doesn’t mention Craig Newmark or Craigslist in his screed against Google, even though, if you were to buy into the fundamentals of Taplin’s argument, Craigslist clearly did more to erode daily newspapers’ advertising revenue than Google has ever done. And, yet, at the same time, it’s worth noting here that Newmark—like most of the other successful tech moguls Taplin lumps together into a sort of secret-handshake techno-libertarian fraternity—actually gives money to Poynter, ProPublica and other enterprises that actively respond to the very real problem of very fake news.

A little research into the history of scientific discovery puts even the scary Zuckerberg quote about “breaking stuff” in a different light. The philosopher Karl Popper opens his essential book Conjectures and Refutations with two quotations: “Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes,” from Oscar Wilde and “Our whole problem is to make the mistakes as fast as possible,” from the physicist John Archibald Wheeler.

That sentiment—to be adventurous, to risk things, to learn quickly from making mistakes quickly—is, I believe, exactly what Zuckerberg was getting at. It also extends to making mistakes in our search for a new business model for journalism. But this shouldn’t include Jonathan Taplin’s great big mistake of looking into the digital future and seeing only places we’ve been before.

Mike Godwin (@sfmnemonic) is a Senior Fellow at R Street Institute. Godwin was named as a Freedom Forum Fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in 1997 and may have once said something about Nazis online for which he will always be remembered.

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Companies: facebook, google

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Comments on “Here Comes The Attempt To Reframe Silicon Valley As Modern Robber Barons”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I read Taplin I knew something weird was coming. I read something similar in the local newspaper. It actually started with some interesting questioning but quickly devolved into a “Google, Amazon, Apple etc bad cause they are big” rant and how newspapers are treated so unfairly and nobody gives us free money like these companies. It’s kind of hard to fix old vices so the best we can do is give him that understanding look parents give when kids do dumb things, explain why he is wrong and wait for the next dumb thing. Chances are he is not changing.


Re: Someone must have been sleeping...

They are late to the party here. Tech monopolists have been compared to Victorian age robber barons since back when this was all done on BBS forums with serial modems.

Considering that the real Robber Barons abused their monopoly of transport to rob blind those that wanted to get their stuff to market, the comparison is not entirely unwarranted.

David (profile) says:

Re: Hate to say it, that 'Monopoly' Title has some merit...

I am pleased to say you are clearly wrong.

What Monopoly? There isn’t one. None of them have a monopoly and from a user perspective they started out in a crowded field and succeeded through innovation.

There are many alternatives today however and they are arguably better than the originals (not all) that have fallen by the wayside. FB doesn’t have a direct competitor (to my way of looking at it) but there are many solutions that provide similar social connections without being tied to the Zuck himself.

As to Google purchasing of double-click apparently Clueless hisself must not remember the days when double-click was it’s own company. It quite possibly was the biggest waste of energy in America if not the world. Entire legions of internet users waited on their miserable infrastructure to fetch up yet more flash ads.

Sen Al Franken (the stein is silent) has repeatedly stated that Google is just too big. Really? That is a crime in America? Well, let’s talk to Ford, GM, Mobile Oil, and the entire rust belt of law ignoring, polluting, human rights shredding old school crowd.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Hate to say it, that 'Monopoly' Title has some merit...

What PaulT says. None of the services mentioned above are monopolies unless they are actively gaming the market.

Google: other search engines, etc., exist and they’ve not done anyone to stop other entities from offering the same services in any way, shape or form. Microsoft, on the other hand, got their OS shipped as standard with every PC and actively opposed open source.

Facebook: other social network facilities exist; Zuck not stopping other people making their own.

Amazon: other e-tail service available, nobody stopping anyone else from flogging stuff online.

Try again, Taplin.

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Hate to say it, that 'Monopoly' Title has some merit...

Numerous competitors? {smile} Not really… when one factors in creators having a decent chance at getting paid for the content they produced. Please, if you have links to tables that show the rates that various platforms pay for views (i.e. YouTube versus Vimeo or Minds or so on) – be sure to publish them to refute my statement.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Hate to say it, that 'Monopoly' Title has some merit...

First, please state what your actual criteria are. You seem to have immediately shifted from the claim that they have no competitors to complaining that their many competitors aren’t offering the same reimbursement rates. So, you admit they have competitors, which refutes your original statement.

How narrow is your definition of “monopoly”, and what are the criteria? No, “I get a better rate if I publish through platform X rather than platform Y” does not mean that Y is not a competitor, nor does it make X a monopoly.

“be sure to publish them to refute my statement.”

Why? Your statement didn’t say anything about them. The basic fact is that they have a lot of competitors in the online video market. If you want me to refute a more narrow claim, you have to make it first. But, the initial statement is bunk.

The only thing that makes any sense is if you’re complaining that it’/s easier to get a decent sized audience through YouTube than others because of their size. Well, that doesn’t make a monopoly, and if publishers don’t like they should perhaps not base their entire business model on a single distributor.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Hate to say it, that 'Monopoly' Title has some merit...

This, and not just because PaulT agrees with me.


If you’re talking about monopsony, that’s not the case with Google; other avenues for artists and creators to seek reimbursement for their efforts exist.

If you create content and want to be paid for it, explore new business models instead of creating artificial scarcity and expecting your target market to play along.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Hate to say it, that 'Monopoly' Title has some merit...

I think what he’s claiming is that the market in which he’s asserting YouTube has a monopoly is not “online video services” but “online video services in which the creators/providers of that video have a meaningful chance of getting paid”.

I.e., that the difference between free-but-you-don’t-make-money video services and free-and-you-can-make-money video services is so major as to make them entirely different markets for the purpose of determining monopoly status, and that the only player in the latter space is YouTube.

I’m not sufficiently familiar with the field to judge these claims, but at least the latter does look a little dubious at first glance.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Hate to say it, that 'Monopoly' Title has some merit...

“I.e., that the difference between free-but-you-don’t-make-money video services and free-and-you-can-make-money video services is so major as to make them entirely different markets for the purpose of determining monopoly status, and that the only player in the latter space is YouTube.”

Perhaps, but his assertion is even more nonsensical that way.

The way I’m actually reading it is that he’s annoyed that YouTube have recently changed the way it pays creators and he feels that their competitors still don’t offer a good enough deal to migrate away from them. His demand for a citation (for his own assertion, weirdly) of payment tables seems to suggest he’s saying that YouTube still pay more per view than their competitors.

Calling that a monopoly position is a stretch, especially if the underlying problem is that the creators are dumb enough to base 100% of their income on a single vendor and/or revenue stream. I was just hoping he’d clarify what he was talking about instead of blathering on about things that are demonstrably false in a second.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Hate to say it, that 'Monopoly' Title has some merit...

when one factors in creators having a decent chance at getting paid for the content they produced

Many people use YouTube as a social media and video distribution site, to connect with their fans and community. Often getting paid is not a a priority, and some have been able to go full time by using the various ways, outside of YouTube, Like Patreon, to obtain the Income needed to become full time content creators.

You might want to listen to come YouTuber’s explaining why they are on YouTube.

Also you could look at NYC CNC Where John Saunders taught Himself CNC machining, and built a business by using YouTube and other resources and social media sites.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wouldn't be discussing Microsoft or Google or Facebook today if IBM and ATT hadn't been restrained by anti-trust in the 1970s.

And that fact applies to the current techno-fascists, because corporate power will always grow if not limited by political process.

You smug netwits have never lived in time or place where corporations are unregulated, only in the safety that was given you after long hard struggles. You won’t look at history nor trends, just assert that it’s perfectly safe to loose these legal fictions which in practice are amoral and immortal beasts.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Wouldn't be discussing Microsoft or Google or Facebook today if IBM and ATT hadn't been restrained by anti-trust in the 1970s.

You’d better hope you don’t realise the fundamental differences between the AT&T situation and Google, because you’re going to understand how ridiculous you look with your claims.

“You smug netwits have never lived in time or place where corporations are unregulated”

So, which is it? Are these corporations unregulated in the present or have we never lived in a time where they were unregulated? It can’t be both, no matter how much you whine.

If only you’d deal with reality as quickly as you whine about people using childish namecalling.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: When Google started, it was the little guy

Yeah, too many people believe the Idea is the hard and important part, and that implementation is just make-work. It’s the other way around – ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s the implementation where all the work and ingenuity comes in. You see this problem the most in patents – too many patents on just an idea with no implementation… that way they can sue on ANY implementation that comes along.


Re: When Google started, it was the little guy

Entrenched? Not really. They started early on before most people were even fully aware of the Internet. People forget just how long they have been around. If you’ve been on any particular website for as long, you would be considered a severe old timer.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: When Google started, it was the little guy

Entrenched seems the right word. At the time, for the people who did use the internet, what was the first name you thought of when you wanted to search for something?

It wasn’t Google. (AltaVista, Yahoo, . . .)

But Google did spread fast. The first I heard of it was on Slashdot. I tried it. I liked it. And the search page was just so . . . so plain. And simple.

Anonymous Coward says:

Godwin doesn’t really write anything here whereas Taplin at least tries to use some facts – but fails to make them support his opinions. Also, Taplin seems more confused than anything and lacks specifics for how his anti-monopoly suggestion is supposed to solve anything in regards to his valueless rant on creator rights. So in the end I see a bad article by Taplin and a horribe answer from Godwin. None of them serving the public in an area where both could have easily made meaningful points.

I sometimes yearn for the “good old days” of the internet when doubleclick was one of the biggest scourges in malware and their methods seen as immoral. Today they use far more extensive methods, but are seen as innovators and very moral relative to their ilk.

The problem of value of information versus privacy is driven towards value of information by advertisers mostly. And the value of information is completely independent of how they are obtained, which promotes more and more invasive ways of collecting and cross-referencing data.
If Taplin had argued for regulation of how advertisers obtains information he would have had a point. He just takes it far out of context and completely lose sight of the consumer-side and thus the point of his antitrust solutions when he rants about creators…

OA (profile) says:


Facebook, Google and Amazon have earned a number of real and highly relevant criticisms. The “why’s” and “what’s” of those critiques have to be worked out. Some critics imply that they completed that work (unasked, on behalf to the masses and/or elites), skip the explanation phase and jump straight to “corrective measures”. However, these types of critics are actually using real angst, felt in connection to poorly understood conditions to push on-lookers towards unreasonable and non-rational beliefs and reactions. AKA, Prejudicing the reader… {oops, no more time for now}…

Anonymous Coward says:

patent goldrush

It could be argued that many of these internet age giants owe much of their success to their skillful exploitation of patents, basically getting a government-sanctioned decades-long monopoly on the use of a simple idea that took someone perhaps ten seconds to come up with. Amazon’s one-click shopping cart and Google’s link-rated search results are just two that come to mind.

Had the US Patent office refused to recognize software and business-method patents during the 1990s tech boom and beyond, then it’s quite possible that the business landscape today would be much more diversified, and therefore the very issues these writers are arguing over would be largely non-existent.

Christenson says:

Google -- Power Corrupts

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The robber barons of old, like Andrew Carnegie, used to shoot their striking workers. MPAA would like to jail you for taking a peek at their movie, or worse, parodying it.

NSA, ISPs, phone companies, Google, Facebook, etc, are no different. As they grow more powerful, more checks (like those that led to the internet in the first place!) will be needed.

I think Mike would agree that markets, in which there are many roughly equal players, are very effective. There’s lots of room for discussion when the number of players gets small, either buyers or sellers, or there are huge externalities, like pollution.

profssrfink (profile) says:

yes and no

To the author’s point, any company or industry that uses untold millions or billions of dollars to suppress competition and prevent newcomers to the market should be kept in check by some institution, either government or otherwise.

But the irony of this thought process is that companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc. buy and fund startups on a regular basis to promote growth in nascent industries. Apple and Google routinely buy and invest in AI, AR, chip manufacturing, entertainment, financial transactions technology etc. in hopes of incorporating that technology into their portfolios or products in the future.

This is wholesale different from what IBM and ATT did in the 60’s and 70’s where they did everything they could to prevent such ideas from making it to the forefront of the public eye.

Further, these companies compete with each other in so many ways, often times unsuccessfully. Google spends God-knows-how-much money on other platforms that are either DOA or abandoned. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon do the same. But that spillover trains and curates some of the best tech talent on the planet, and often times that talent goes on to create new and exciting technologies that Apple and Google and Microsoft will never touch.

Making a case that these companies need a check by the govt. because people choose to use their products is misguided and ultimately sounds like a person who wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Anonymous Coward says:

I used to work with John Taplin at a consulting company. His day rate was $10K a day. Clients that hired him were the Verizon/Cablevision types. One project involved bring a bunch of telecom execs into his lecture hall filled with hundreds of students, John asked for a raise of hands on how many of these students expected to have a landline in the future, very few kids raised their hands. This was probably around 2003.

John Taplin is no dummy.

Did you know that he used to be Bob Dylan’s manager?

Lord_Unseen (profile) says:

You never mentioned the dumbest thing in the whole article. In his mind, not only is Google a monopoly, it’s a natural monopoly. How a search provider could possibly be a natural monopoly, akin to a utility, escapes me completely.

The other thing that bugs me about this piece is he makes the same mistake a lot of other people make when talking about the tech world. He talks about how different the landscape is from just ten years ago and then immediately turns around and assumes the companies dominating now will continue to dominate in the future.

If you assume Google (or Amazon, etc) as a natural monopoly and regulate it as such, you enshrine its current dominance in law. When it begins its inevitable slide into irrelevance, that regulatory framework ends up causing much more damage than the fall of Google (or Amazon, etc) would’ve on it’s own.

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