Ghost in the Shell, Shochiku, 1995
From The New Yorker:
Thirty years ago, almost no one used the Internet for anything. Today, just about everybody uses it for everything. Even as the Web has grown, however, it has narrowed. Google now controls nearly ninety per cent of search advertising, Facebook almost eighty per cent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about seventy-five per cent of e-book sales. Such dominance, Jonathan Taplin argues, in “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy” (Little, Brown), is essentially monopolistic. In his account, the new monopolies are even more powerful than the old ones, which tended to be limited to a single product or service. Carnegie, Taplin suggests, would have been envious of the reach of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
Taplin, who until recently directed the Annenberg Innovation Lab, at the University of Southern California, started out as a tour manager. He worked with Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, and the Band, and also with George Harrison, on the Concert for Bangladesh. In “Move Fast and Break Things,” Taplin draws extensively on this experience to illustrate the damage, both deliberate and collateral, that Big Tech is wreaking.
Consider the case of Levon Helm. He was the drummer for the Band, and, though he never got rich off his music, well into middle age he was supported by royalties. In 1999, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. That same year, Napster came along, followed by YouTube, in 2005. Helm’s royalty income, which had run to about a hundred thousand dollars a year, according to Taplin, dropped “to almost nothing.” When Helm died, in 2012, millions of people were still listening to the Band’s music, but hardly any of them were paying for it. (In the years between the founding of Napster and Helm’s death, total consumer spending on recorded music in the United States dropped by roughly seventy per cent.) Friends had to stage a benefit for Helm’s widow so that she could hold on to their house.
Google entered and more or less immediately took over the music business when it acquired YouTube, in 2006, for $1.65 billion in stock. As Taplin notes, just about “every single tune in the world is available on YouTube as a simple audio file (most of them posted by users).” Many of these files are illegal, but to Google this is inconsequential. Under the Digital Media Copyright Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton shortly after Google went live, Internet service providers aren’t liable for copyright infringement as long as they “expeditiously” take down or block access to the material once they’re notified of a problem. Musicians are constantly filing “takedown” notices—in just the first twelve weeks of last year, Google received such notices for more than two hundred million links—but, often, after one link is taken down, the song goes right back up at another one. In the fall of 2011, legislation aimed at curbing online copyright infringement, the Stop Online Piracy Act, was introduced. It had bipartisan support in Congress, and backing from such disparate groups as the National District Attorneys Association, the National League of Cities, the Association of Talent Agencies, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In January, 2012, the bill seemed headed toward passage, when Google decided to flex its market-concentrated muscles. In place of its usual colorful logo, the company posted on its search page a black rectangle along with the message “Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the web!” The resulting traffic overwhelmed congressional Web sites, and support for the bill evaporated. (Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, who had been one of the bill’s co-sponsors, denounced it on Facebook.)
Google itself doesn’t pirate music; it doesn’t have to. It’s selling the traffic—and, just as significant, the data about the traffic. Like the Koch brothers, Taplin observes, Google is “in the extraction industry.” Its business model is “to extract as much personal data from as many people in the world at the lowest possible price and to resell that data to as many companies as possible at the highest possible price.” And so Google profits from just about everything: cat videos, beheadings, alt-right rants, the Band performing “The Weight” at Woodstock, in 1969.