Back at the beginning of the millennium, the music industry was in a serious state. CDs were in decline as consumers digitised the way they consumed music: but they were doing it for free via Napster and other pirate websites.
And then, in 2001, the industry’s knight in shining armour appeared, in the shape of Steve Jobs. He announced the birth of iTunes at the Macworld Expo, heralding a music revolution. The era of MP3 music was here, and over the next six years Apple would sell more than 100 million units of the iconic iPod with which to listen to those MP3s. Apple was at the pinnacle of its success, having redefined what music ownership looked like: no longer physical records, tapes or CDs, but a world of songs in your pocket.
In the 18 years since its launch, iTunes has become a media behemoth, a one-stop shop for users to consume not just music, but movies and TV and, latterly, podcasts too. But over the last few years, downloading has been eclipsed by a new kind of access: digital streaming.
In 2008, just a year after the launch of the first iPhone and when iTunes was at the height of its powers, a small Swedish start-up called Spotify launched its music streaming service across eight European markets. Its two-tier model – free to the consumer ad-funded, and a premium subscription option – gave users on-demand access to stream millions of tracks. Music streaming was still in its infancy, accounting for just 1% of global music revenues in 2007, and Spotify’s initial growth was good but unremarkable. By 2013, they had 30 million active users and 8 million premium subscribers.
It is the six years since 2013 that have seen a seismic shift in how music is consumed. By March of this year, Spotify’s user base had skyrocketed, with 217 million active users and 100 million premium subscribers around the world, a number which looks set to continue growing. By opening up the streaming market and persuading users to give up ownership of their music, Spotify has arguably redefined the music industry, just as Apple did when it persuaded users to give up physical ownership.
iTunes’ download model was starting to look clunky and old-fashioned. In 2015, Apple launched Apple Music, its streaming service which it hoped would compete with Spotify and other broadcasters with its three distinct components – on-demand streaming, radio and Apple Connect, which allows artists to upload songs, videos and photos for followers. Since then, as streaming has increasingly become the norm, there have been rumours that iTunes would be wound down.
That finally came to pass this week, as Apple announced at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose that it would replace iTunes with standalone music, television and podcast apps. This will align Apple’s media strategy across the board: iPhones and iPads already offer separate apps for Music, TV and Podcast, and Mac/Macbook users can expect the same.
However, the move is symbolic as well as practical. As Amy X Wang says in Rolling Stone, “by portioning out its music, television and podcast offerings into three separate platforms, Apple will pointedly draw attention to itself as a multifaceted entertainment services provider, no longer as a hardware company that happens to sell entertainment through one of its many apps” – and that’s increasingly important as iPhone sales have started to slow.
This move towards entertainment services is being seen across the technology and communications sector: we’ve seen the tech giants buy up rights to live sport, while AT&T acquired Time Warner for $85bn and Disney bought most of the 21st Century Fox empire, fending off an offer from Comcast. This trend is of course being driven by changing consumer behaviour as internet connections over 4G and now 5G accelerate – allowing for uninterrupted streaming of music, TV and films. We’re seeing the effects of technology on the media and communications industries, and lines between these sectors will continue to blur. This blurring of boundaries will then pose another issue on how they can all be monitored & assessed both separately and in totality.
Facebook is facing heavy scrutiny from people and governments across the world after a range of transgressions: the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the hiring of a PR firm to attack George Soros, the departure of 10 top executives and the livestreaming of the Christchurch terrorist attack among them. These and other issues have forced Zuckerberg and his senior management team to appear before governmental committees and the press to explain exactly how they are going to change. This was all reflected in Facebook’s share price, which peaked in July 2018 but had plummeted by 40% by the end of the year.
The conclusion? Facebook must focus on real, meaningful evolution in order to ensure a prosperous future – and that’s just what they appear to be doing.
After months of appearing before government committees and journalists around the world, in March this year Mark Zuckerberg seemed to finally kick off the evolution that his organisation so urgently needs. Having rejected demands for increased regulatory oversight of Facebook for years, in an editorial in the Washington Post Zuckerberg called for more cooperation with governments to deal with the problems posed by internet platforms and emergent internet technologies: “By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it – the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things – while also protecting society from broader harms”.
Zuckerberg argued that there were four areas that would require deeper cooperation between tech companies, governments and regulators: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability. Measures he suggested included the creation of an independent body to review Facebook’s content moderation decisions and the formation of a set of standardised rules for harmful content; regulation for common standards for verifying political actors; a focus on creating laws that address advertising for divisive political issues; and GDPR-type regulations across the world. Nick Clegg, the head of Facebook’s global affairs and communications team, spoke about how “the way that the rules are drawn – or not drawn – will be quite different to how they are drawn in ten years’ time… and I think big tech companies have a choice: either they play ball and they try to play a responsible role in that debate, or they try to duck it all together.”
Facebook hasn’t stopped at promoting cooperation between tech firms and governments: the evolution strategy has also extended to a series of changes, announced in April, that ‘put privacy first’ because ‘the future is private’. These changes include encrypting Messenger messages and fully integrating the Messenger platform with WhatsApp; trialling a ‘private like counts’ feature; and ways of sharing content without a permanent record. Furthermore, the company is rolling out ‘FB5’, an aspirational redesign of the platform that puts the spotlight on what Facebook would like to be – thoughtful, meaningful and calm. The Groups functionality will be central, and there will be an increased focus on Marketplace as well.
The challenge facing those governments and regulators with whom Zuckerberg wants to work to create a new, brighter internet is massive. Siva Vaidhyanthan notes that “regulators are trying to address Facebook as if it’s like companies they have encountered before. But Facebook presents radically new challenges. It is unlike anything else in human history – with the possible exception of Google.” Governments are trying: the UK, for example, proposed a duty of care standard for platforms to ensure they filter harmful content, and the US government is expected to issue a $5bn fine for the violation of a 2011 order preventing the distribution of user data to companies such as Cambridge Analytica. But Vaidhyanthan compares this approach to dealing individual weather events rather than tackling climate change. Others have suggested more radical approaches: Facebook’s co-founder Chris Hughes called for Facebook to be broken up because “Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or government. He controls three core communications platforms – Facebook. Instagram and WhatsApp – that billions of people use every day… The government must hold Mark accountable.” Meanwhile, US senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren proposed dramatic antitrust regulations, and a Bloomburg article suggested that, as social media has been proven to be addictive, it should be regulated in the same way as the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries – and not the communications industry.
The issues that Facebook faces are dramatically different to, and more important than, those faced by any other company, and they require dramatically different solutions. The varied approaches announced by Facebook in recent months are collaborative, radical and positive, and we at ECI Media Management look forward to seeing them come to fruition.
With increased transparency in the Facebook marketplace, response from consumers is likely to be varied. Users, Governments and Corporations alike should clearly understand how their data is being used by Facebook to target Ads. Changes to transparency and the required investment into security, will no doubt impact the firm’s profits. As customers and co-operations learn more about the result of their time and investment into the platform, initially it is likely demand for the Ad space will see a minor drop, before companies become educated on how to utilise on this newfound transparency. At ECI Media Management, we recognise the value and immense scale of Facebook, which will be crucial to monitor as it moves into this new era.
There’s no denying that the tech giants are having a hard time of it at the moment. There have been the scandals that we’re all so familiar with: Facebook is still dealing with the fall-out from the Cambridge Analytica affair as well as accusations that it allows interference in national elections, while earlier this year Google once again had to face the wrath of angry advertisers whose ads had been run alongside inappropriate content on YouTube. They’re also facing numerous legal challenges from national and EU lawmakers in Europe over issues such as privacy, fake news, tax and competition – and of course there is GDPR to contend with.
Into this rather bleak landscape strode Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic candidate for the US presidential election in 2020. In a blog post Warren laid out a plan to break up the tech giants, namely Amazon, Facebook and Google, by forcing them to divest some of their biggest acquisitions and money-spinners.
So what are the reasons that Warren gives? There are two key ones: in her view, the big tech companies damage small businesses and innovation which stifle healthy competition. In effect, she believes that Facebook, Google and Amazon in particular have too much power over the economy, society and democracy. Facebook scored an own goal by promptly removing her ads around this issue from the platform. It later restored them, but they had neatly illustrated Warren’s point for her (!).
The implications of Warren’s proposals are huge. She would pass legislation designating platforms with more than $25bn in revenue as ‘platform utilities’, which would be banned from owning both the platform and the participants at the same time. This would mean that, for example, Google would need to spin off Search, with Amazon doing the same with Marketplace. Perhaps even more dramatically, Warren also claimed that she would appoint regulators to reverse mergers that had already been completed – including Facebook’s purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp, and Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. This would lead to a world where Facebook would be competing with Instagram and Amazon’s power over sellers – and buyers – would be curbed significantly.
Warren wants to implement these measures to “restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition, and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last”. She points to the antitrust case involving Microsoft in the 1990s which forced the ‘original’ tech giant to behave with increased restraint into the new millennium and, argues Warren, paved the way for the growth of the very giants she now wants to shrink.
Warren is not alone in wanting to address the huge power held by the tech giants, particularly as the public feels increasingly uncomfortable about the amount of power they wield, but she is the first to have crossed the threshold to an antitrust solution. Of course, the chances are that Warren will not be the next President of the United States (she’s up against many other Democratic candidates, not to mention the incumbent) and, even if she is, many believe that her measures will be extremely difficult to implement. However, what is undeniable is that the tech firms must evaluate how they operate in order to regain trust from users and from governments. A middle ground could be, as suggested by the Report of the Digital Competition Expert Panel, which was commissioned by the British Government and led by Barack Obama’s economic adviser Jason Furman. The report recommends a new regulator to force firms to ‘rewire’ themselves so that users have more control of their data and can switch between providers; it also suggests modernising antitrust rules.
As ever, Google, Facebook and Amazon have an uphill struggle on their hands, and they must examine their business models hard if they are to continue their success and deflect the scrutiny of governments across the world.