Google’s almost-total control over the news is a competition killer.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Imagine if a single company had the same sweeping and arbitrary power over print news distribution that Google wields over digital news distribution. Such a company would rightly be the subject of intense public and government scrutiny. Yet in dealing with Google, the Federal Trade Commission has largely decided to take the company’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” at face value and let Google regulate itself.
The FTC’s recent, premature decision to close down its investigation of Google is a blow not just to Google’s competitors but to the health of American democracy in the digital age. At issue was whether Google’s search results are rigged to favor its own products and services, and whether that would count as an abuse. So far, the discussion of the FTC’s investigation has been about the effect on products and services like tablet PCs and travel-planning websites. Left undiscussed is one supremely important product Google has an impact on: news.
For a news provider, dropping below the front pages of Google’s search results means lost advertising dollars. But more important, it can mean disappearing from public view. In the United States last fall, about 65 percent of all web searches were made on Google. In Britain and elsewhere in Europe, the figure was closer to 90 percent. When Google’s secret and constantly changing algorithm decides a news source is not relevant, that source can lose credibility and become invisible to a significant chunk of the reading public. Google’s unchallenged monopoly in the online marketplace is becoming an unchallenged monopoly in the marketplace of ideas.
We deserve better, because news is not just a commodity; it’s a public trust in private hands. Since the country’s founding, the government has acted on this belief by indirectly encouraging the free flow of news through regulation and subsidies.
If the FTC’s decision to drop its case against Google is any indication, it won’t be fighting for any serious concessions to the public good from the companies that rule the Internet. And Google’s behavior with news companies indicates that we can’t expect much from it either. Google News makes money by aggregating headlines and news summaries it doesn’t pay for and selling ads next to them. Google doesn’t share any of the advertising profits with the news companies. When the president of France proposed to Google that it start paying French publishers to use their content, Google threatened to stop indexing French news websites.
If we want robust journalism, America cannot afford to take the same hands-off approach with the Internet that it has taken with television and radio. Now is the time for Congress to step in as it did in 1792, when it passed the Postal Act allowing newspapers and magazines to circulate in the mail for a nominal fee.
Massive postal subsidies remained in effect for more than 170 years, making it possible for countless small but important publications to join the national conversation. How can we best ensure that such voices will be heard for the next century and a half? Allowing Google its monopoly is certainly not the way to do it. A first step would be to reorganize the Federal Communications Commission, whose basic structure has not changed since it was created in 1934 (and the few changes that have been made to it have rendered the agency toothless).
We are witnessing nothing less than the birth of a dominant new information medium. Our obligation is not just to the present but to future generations who will be educated and will conduct the country’s business inside that medium. We need strong government protections to ensure that the Internet will be not just a place to buy and sell products, but also a place to teach, inspire and inform.
William F. Baker directs Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at Fordham.