Editorial: Blank pages highlight high tech’s threat to journalism

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The internet has revolutionized our world, setting in motion forces that have shaken traditional industries to their core and provided economies to others that have in turn benefited most of the globe’s population. But there is a darker side to the story, and the pandemic has accelerated revolutions on both sides of the coin.

The rise of e-commerce was challenging for many brick and mortar operations well before anyone had heard of COVID-19, but when the pandemic hit and closed down most retail operations the result was as fast as it was devastating. Recent economic data clearly indicate that the hardest hit in the economy were among the most precarious, youth job opportunities and part-time work evaporated in Ontario and Quebec to the tune of more than 251,000 jobs.

The communication and logistics potential of artificial intelligence coupled with the internet have run roughshod over the normal safeguards of capitalism. Monopoly is the very antithesis of the type of capitalism that is the foundation of our western economies, for without the competition of many suppliers the model breaks. That is why we have anti-trust and combines (groups of co-operating companies) legislation, why governments have chosen to break up corporations that have grown so large as to be able to dictate the market for their goods and services.

It is no accident that the world’s wealthiest have grown monumentally richer during the pandemic. This was happening before the advent of COVID-19, the trend has simply accelerated and become more evident due to the forces in play to combat the global pandemic.

Setting the pandemic aside, Google and Facebook, two of the Goliaths of the internet, have grown into an information duopoly that has come to threaten journalism, one of the core pillars of western democracy.

Because between them, these two giant internet monopolies control both search and social media, they dominate our online world. Their size and ubiquity ensure that they can dictate the terms of any arrangement between themselves and anyone who must do business with them. The choice of the word “must” is deliberate. There is no avoiding doing business with these two robber barons of the information age. Together, these two internet giants have hijacked the news content created by credible organizations and hoovered up online ad revenue to the tune of over 75 percent—all while acting as conduits for misinformation and anti-democratic propaganda on a scale our grandparents could not begin to fathom.

A few days ago, newspapers across the land were published with blank front pages with a line at the bottom “imagine a world with no news” in order to shine a light on what is happening to the free press and credible journalism in our democracies.

This isn’t a Canadian, or American, or European, or Asiatic problem—it is global in scope. Some countries are fighting back. Australia and France are taking steps to force these two giants to either share the wealth or to stop stealing the content. Canadian publishers are lobbying hard for our government to step up to the plate as well.

In reaction, the Goliaths are threatening to cut off Australia from their social media and search services and throwing immense resources to encourage regimes such as the US to ally with them to force countries like Australia to toe their line.

Government intervention in the market has long been a favourite target of the right, conservatives who see themselves as the guardians of capitalism and the free market forces that have proven so successful in creating our modern wealth and prosperity. But this is an issue that transcends partisanship. Witness the blank front page of the left-leaning Toronto Star mirrored on those of the definitely right of centre National Post and Toronto Sun—stranger bedfellows one would be hard put to imagine.

This isn’t about buggy whips and horse collars either. Credible and independent news will never be obsolete, but if we are not vigilant and complacently expect the forces of the (no longer existent) free market to level the field, they could very well become extinct. Monopolies, or even duopolies, are not free markets. They are the complete anathema of a free market system. It is long past time to reign them in.

This will not be easy. Divide and conquer is a tried and true method. The free nations of the world must wake up to the new world reality of high tech and the internet and recognize how a handful of corporations can leverage their might for their own benefit at the expense of our cherished freedoms. This trend will take the combined might of the world’s free market democracies to successfully combat—Canada must step up to the challenge to do its part.

You, dear reader, are Canada. Contact your MP, write the prime minister, contact other government ministers and party leaders of all stripes and colours and tell them “it’s time to level the playing field.”