By Matt Stoller

“America cannot be content with conditions that fit only the hero, the martyr or the slave.” – Louis Brandeis, 1914

Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit against Apple, alleging a pattern of unfair and coercive conduct, largely but not entirely centered around the iPhone. As part of the claim outside of the smartphone, the Antitrust Division asserted that “Apple’s conduct extends beyond just monopoly profits and even affects the flow of speech. For example, Apple is rapidly expanding its role as a TV and movie producer and has exercised that role to control content.” Some economists mocked the suit, suggesting, among other things, that political power should have no role in analysis of how monopolies function.

A recent incident should have disabused us all of that naive illusion. Last night, Jon Stewart interviewed Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan on the Daily Show. Stewart, after a long hiatus, which included a stint doing a podcast for Apple TV+, resumed hosting the show he made famous, even if only one night a week. During the interview with Khan, he said that Apple had blocked him from interviewing her while he was at Apple. “They literally said, please don’t talk to her,” he offered. Stewart also noted that Apple had told him not to do segments on artificial intelligence, adding to his earlier complaints about Apple’s refusal to sanction discussions of China.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/oaDTiWaYfcM?start=997&rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

A lot of people claim that big tech censors their content, downgrades it, demonetizes it, or otherwise manipulates speech. And some of that is just griping. But you know a corporation has too much power over speech, and exercises it, when its executives feels they can censor their own regulator. And Apple clearly does feel that way.

It’s a wide-ranging interview, in which Khan and Stewart discuss everything from inhalers to antitrust to big tech. And it’s worth watching. But the key moment was when Stewart asked Khan why Apple would do something like that. And she responded, “I think it just shows one of the dangers of what happens when you concentrate so much power and so much decision-making in a small number of companies.”

That is the right analysis. It’s well-known that Apple bars TV producers on its streaming service from commenting on China. When I was in Hollywood last year, censorship on behalf of China by all the streamers, especially Apple, was a constant complaint. There are obvious reasons, as Apple is de facto controlled by the Chinese government.

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But this coercive behavior goes beyond its TV service. Apple prohibits app developers from discussing its 30% app store fee, and has historically sought to limit political speech, as when it blocked an app that catalogued U.S. drone strikes as “excessively objectionable or crude.” Indeed, as part of why people should care about the Apple suit, I wrote that the “corporation has become a dangerous corporation, with designs on imposing an authoritarian vision over as much of the economy as it can get away with.” And we see, with Khan and Stewart, a blindingly obvious example.

Apple’s attempt to block Stewart from interviewing Khan or to talk about AI and China worked, as long as Stewart worked at Apple. But eventually he left, and fortunately, there are other channels Stewart can use to tell his stories. So when he revealed what had happened, reporters finally had a way to describe the problem with Apple in terms people could understand. Stories appeared at Gizmodo, Axios, The Verge, AppleInsider, Mercury News, New York Post, 9to5Mac, Salon, Vanity Fair, iMore, Variety, Spyglass, NBC News, CNBC, UPROXX, Engadget, Cybernews.com, Business Insider, Forbes, The Hollywood Reporter, Patently Apple, Deadline, etc. Apple, and big tech, will never live this story down.

But there’s a real dark side as well. Sure Apple got embarrassed. But Jon Stewart is a powerful media figure and Khan is probably the most famous regulator in America. Most of us are not empowered, and can’t command the media or legal resources to make ourselves heard. Stewart had the ability to get Paramount to broadcast his show, but who is to say that a less powerful media figure might not have encountered Paramount executives afraid of running afoul of Apple? The threat of retaliation is overwhelming, and even if it weren’t, it shouldn’t be frightening to exercise the basic right of speech.

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