• The Low Down

21st-century robber barons

Guest editorial

The wealthy elite of the late 19th century were the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford — industrialists who amassed their fortunes as so-called robber barons or captains of industry.


They created massive personal wealth by monopolizing huge industries, driving out small competitors, exploiting workers and paying little attention to their customers or competition.


The tide was changed in the U.S. only when antitrust legislation was enacted and their powerful monopolies were broken up.


Today’s so-called robber barons or captains of industry run digital monopolies, using similar 19th-century tactics to drive out competition, exploit customer’s personal information, avoid taxes and engage in highly unethical business practices.


Most notable are Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Facebook and Google’s anticompetitive duopoly is responsible for more than 300 Canadian newspapers in the last decade closing their doors due to the collapse of ad revenues.


Today, 75 per cent of Canada’s digital ad market goes into the pockets of these two multi-media giants. They are 21st-century robber barons — taking much and giving little in return.


Monopolies always control the marketplace for their own financial gain, but today these two powerful duos, Facebook and Google, are also undermining democracies and causing untold disharmony and instability worldwide.


Many democratic governments are finally waking up to this reality.


Canadians want and need high-quality journalism and investigative reporting. Google and Facebook employ no journalists and make only token efforts to separate truth from fiction. In fact, their algorithms favour sensation, fiction and misinformation.

Sensational lies and conspiracy theories attract a lot more eyeballs than facts and truth. The more eyeballs, the higher the ad revenues. Whereas independent news publishers have a legal responsibility to ensure content is truthful and accurate, Google and Facebook have no obligations to vet content for authenticity or legality.

News Media Canada in September released a report, “Levelling the Digital Playing Field,” highlighting the unfairness and dangers the current structure has for the survival of Canada's free press and truth.


Facebook and Google have gained dominance of the media marketplace because of preferential regulatory treatment, negotiating leverage, preventing entry of ad tech competitors, deciding media winners and losers, abusing publishers’ intellectual property rights and paying no fees to the producers of original content, the free press.

The dominance of Facebook and Google also harms Canada’s gross domestic product. Facebook employs only a handful of Canadians and each pays little or no Canadian taxes.


Australia and France have passed legislation, and Canada and others are exploring legislative solutions that would provide a level playing field.


Although such legislation is extremely necessary and urgent in the short term, it will only be when U.S. legislators dust off their antitrust legislation and break up the power of these 21st-century robber barons that the future of the free press and truth can truly be secured.


Brenda Schimke is a guest journalist for the ECA Review. Reprinted with permission as part of News Media Canada’s Levelling the Digital Playing Field initiative.

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