Last week’s decision by Google to settle its dispute with France and to pump 60 million Euro of the company’s advertising profits into developing digital publishing for French journalism could prove to be a watershed moment for journalism around the world.
The company has backed down in the face of a robust campaign by publishers and news providers who have demanded that Google should pay for using news content.
Google had initially played hard ball. They threatened to stop indexing French news web sites when publishers started their campaign, but the intervention of French President Francoise Hollande and growing anger over the company’s unchallenged monopoly of the online news market has forced them to settle.
Now news people in other countries – Germany and other European Union States, perhaps even the United States – are likely to press for similar agreements. Google, which makes its money by aggregating headlines and news story summaries it does not pay for, will come under increasing pressure to share some of its news-related advertising profit with cash-strapped media to help them develop their online services.
This could be a turning point in the unremittingly depressing saga of failing journalism across the globe. In recent years advertising revenues which helped pay for newsrooms have been scooped up by online companies, particularly Google, who until now have been reluctant to invest in keeping journalism alive.
While Google and others have lined their pockets, traditional media have been forced to make cuts in editorial budgets, slashing funding available for investigative journalism, for training, and for investment in jobs and decent working conditions. As a result, standards have fallen.
Critics of the Google monopoly of online news warn that it poses a serious threat not just to journalism, but also to the health of democracy in the digital age.
In the United States last year 65 per cent of all web searches were on Google. In Europe and the UK in particular, the Google share is nearer to 90 per cent.
A monopoly position like that would be unsustainable in traditional news media. Not even Rupert Murdoch would be allowed the same sweeping and arbitrary powers over print news that Google has achieved in its control over the distribution of digital news.
With its extraordinary influence in the market place, Google uses its secretive and constantly changing algorithm to decide which news source is relevant and credible, and which falls from the front page of the search and which is thus rendered invisible to a major part of the reading public.
This is an extraordinary power which should be the subject of intense public and governmental scrutiny, but governments are reluctant to challenge Google as William Baker in The Nation laments following the recent decision of the United States Federal Trade Commission to close its investigation of the company.
It may be that the decision by France will lead to a rethinking within media and among policymakers about the need to ensure that the life is not squeezed out of journalism by competing market models.
But not all media commentators are convinced that the French government’s pressure on Google is right. Dan Gillmor, distinguished author of We The Media, and I had a brief exchange on Twitter about this a few days ago:
@aidanpwhite Pay to link? A great way to destroy the Web. Unfortunate, and dangerous, to see Google giving into this stuff @dangillmor It’s not clear that this is pay to link. As far as I can see it’s Google sharing a slice of its profitable news-related cake. @aidanpwhite the deal looks like a dodge to avoid a pay-to-link precedent, but it stemmed from that desire by news organisations @dangillmor There’s no justifying what some publishers, particularly the Irish, are demanding. But Google should share news-related profits. @aidanpwhite you’re making a moral argument. They should be under no obligation in this regard. @dangillmor It shouldn’t be mandatory, but the moral argument has weight when journalism is being put to the sword by bean-counters.
Certainly, Gillmor is right that the notion promoted by some publishers that access to news sites should be charged – the idea of pay to link – will not work. It is a negative and destructive response which could threaten the way the web works.
But the overweening power of online search providers who profit from the rich pickings of journalism services someone else pays for is unsustainable and unfair.
Companies like Google should be closely scrutinised and not just to ensure that search systems are not being rigged to boost favoured products and services. They also have to be put on the spot about their responsibility to pay something for the news journalism that not only makes them money but which also enriches democracy.
Photo Credit: Spencer E Holtaway – Google News website screenshot (CC BY-ND 2.0)