Google’s Gingras Gives the Monopolist’s Ultimatum

After fake news and the erosion of classic media, time was ripe for policy action. Lawmakers looked at the causes and found that the ad money had gone to Google and that truth had suffered from the all-information-is-equal-ideology that the same company champions. Sure, the media industry had made its own mistakes on the way, but the playing field was far from level: same audience, same content, different rules.

So what to do about it? Of the many candidates (share data, demand licenses, break up the monopoly, enforce liability) policy-makers picked one: news snippets. By showing parts of a story in search results – the idea goes – Google can sell ads against that content and some users will not go to the news organisation’s site (which created and paid for that content in the first place). News media becomes a double loser: paying for the content Google monetizes without getting a slice of the pie. Yes, you can make the objection that maybe news orgs get more traffic with snippets and perhaps would have had to buy ads to get traffic otherwise, but that doesn’t seem consistent with the way the media market has evolved and anyway this was not what the EU policy-makers decided. The pattern is familiar, Big Tech using its special legal exceptions to profit from other people’s content. So EU policy-makers decided that news snippets should be protected and those who publish them (again, Google) should pay the news organisations that made the content. Enter the “publisher’s right” or “link tax”.

Spain and Germany had already tried something like this – introducing a law that demands Google to pay news media when it uses their content. The response? Google stopped showing those search results. This is of course a move that only a monopolist can make and those who cheer for Google should maybe consider what it means that a single company has that much power. Normal competition appears to be set aside. (See also Metcalfe’s law, for example here.) Without Google’s display, traffic decreased and the news media had to waive their new right. Why would this pattern not repeat itself on the European level if applied by the EU? The question was asked to then Commissioner for Digital Society Günther Öttinger at a seminar three years ago:

No one can survive globally without being active in the European market, Öttinger said. Spain was not big enough. Even Germany is not big enough. All services are welcome but must follow European rules.

As France implements the new copyright directive, let’s see if Commissioner Öttinger was right. Will Google accept that it too has a responsibility for the health of news or will it use its dominant position to ignore the attempts of policy-makers? A blogpost by Google’s Richard Gingras, Vice President of News, points to the latter. Let’s take a look at what he has to say:

When the French law comes into force, we will not show preview content in France for a European news publication unless the publisher has taken steps to tell us that’s what they want. This applies to search results across Google services.

So just like in Spain and Germany before, here’s the monopolist’s ultimatum. Gingras wants to dress it up like a choice, but another option would of course be for Google to make deals with news media and share revenue. In fact, this would be in line with how everything else in the world works: I make something, you want it, let’s make a deal.

Publishers have always been able to decide whether their content is available to be found in Google Search or Google News. And we recently introduced more granular webmaster settings that publishers can use to indicate how much preview information they want to include in search results.

Really? Because I’m told Google Search is used to find pirate content, so Google’s respect for other people’s content at least doesn’t outweigh any of its other priorities. When it comes to the news organisations own websites, that sounds great, but the concept of negotiation is still lacking. “Take it or leave it, because we’re so nice we give you that choice.”

The Internet has created more choice and diversity in news than ever before. With so many options, it can be hard for consumers to find the news they are interested in. And for all types of publishers – whether they are big or small, a traditional news site, a new digital player, a local new…

Sounds great. In this choice and diversity, we also get the blessings of fake news and propaganda, presented on equal terms as real news. What’s not to like?

In the world of print, publishers pay newsstands to display their newspapers and magazines so readers can discover them. Google provides these benefits at no cost to publishers.

Haha, yes but those newsstands also sell the papers! It is a revenue source for the news media, helping to pay for things like… journalism. Seriously mr Gingras, you know this of course. So let’s think of this part as a funny joke. Haha.

We constantly look for new ways to prioritize high quality content in our products and are also investing $300 million over three years in the Google News Initiative, which helps publishers develop new revenue streams and explore innovative ways of presenting news. This includes hundreds of projects from developing new fact-checking efforts, to boosting media literacy, to delivering almost 300,000 trainings to journalists in Europe.

Sounds amazing. By the way, when you say “prioritize high quality content”, are you talking about Russian propaganda, ISIS videos or alt.right-conspiracy theories?

By working together we can continue to make progress.

Yes, you can start by sharing revenue, data and respect the rights of content owners.

It looks like the pattern will repeat itself and perhaps Commissioner Öttinger was still right: each country is not strong enough to push back. The idea of an EU-wide effort perhaps will not work as member states implement the rules separately and not at the same time. Google wins again.

One last point: will Google’s smaller competitors suffer? The thinking is that if a dominant player can ignore the rules, but smaller competitors cannot, competition will be held back. But that is assuming competition works as normal in the online markets, which is not the case (Metcalfe again) and the way to a better digital society should not be a race to the bottom anyway.