Commentary: Getting the point of Google News v. the media

Cyber Protection Magazine posted a long article about Google’s decision to start de-listing California-based newspapers. We strove to be as objective as possible and present both sides of the argument, but we did say that the opponents were missing the point, hoping that the point would be obvious in the discussion. Here, however, we want to shed objectivity and make the point clear.

Google’s move, generously described, is a preemptive response to California’s Journalism Preservation Act (AB 886) that has yet to pass the Senate. The act will require Google to sit down and negotiate with California publishers over the fair price of publishing content from those media sites.

Note that the bill is not mandating a price. It is mandating a negotiation. That changes the nature of the discussion.

Wisdom of the opposition

Opponents of the legislation are numerous. Perhaps the most vocal has been Jeff Jarvis, a veteran journalist and academic at City University of New York. Jarvis has posted, blogged, written academic papers, and spoken against this kind of legislation for a couple of years. He’s backed up by other academics, internet activists, and media organizations. I’ll list some of the objections here with responses:

  • It infringes on the people’s right to know. Google violates this in its current actions by depriving users of access to local news, albeit on a “test” basis.
  • It benefits hedge funds and major corporations. Sure because hedge funds have bought up a lot of local newspapers and radio stations, scraped them down to the basics, and started making some money from the investment. They are scum but the money this bill would raise would mostly go to paying salaries for larger newsrooms. That’s money in the pockets of journalists. Regarding major corporations, they don’t get this money unless those corporations cut 90 percent of their staff to get under the wire.
  • It will encourage disinformation. Do you mean as social media algorithms encourage? I played with Meta’s LLaMa AI, asking questions about the preponderance of disinformation on their platforms and how much money they made from it. After a great deal of BS I got the tool to admit that, by directive of upper management, profit must always trump truth when both sides are equal. That reality makes this argument empty
  • It violates the First Amendment rights of social media companies. It seems like “free speech” is always the go-to argument when the government tries to mitigate the damage done by a corporation. Speech that incites violence is not covered under the First Amendment. Neither is the distribution of scams. The social media industry has done the bare minimum to deal with those issues but chooses profit over safety. When that happens, laws get made.

Since the opponents’ arguments are primarily wrapped in distrust of the proponents’ financial self-interest, let me clear the air.

Money, pure and simple

Of course, it is about money. It is not about free speech or disinformation. The bill will cost Meta, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Amazon advertising revenue. The question is, how much? Not much at all.

Currently, YouTube annually pays creators $30 billion in advertising revenue. In contrast, it has invested $1 billion in the infrastructure to send users to a publication’s paywall if they exceed the number of free articles. That has resulted in $0 to local newspapers, the benefactor of the legislation. If that $1 Billion investment has been split up among small California local papers it would save 200 local newspapers from closing.

However, if Alphabet had paid local newspapers across the country two-thirds of what they paid YouTube creators in one year, it would have saved all 2000 small, local newspapers that went out of business since 2014.

Our journalism compatriots who oppose this bill, however, have something in common with the Internet activists they stand with shoulder to shoulder. They have never worked in a local news media organization.

Experience counts

There is a profound difference between local news coverage and SEO-driven online content.

The latter may know the granular marketing information about their audience, but a local journalist knows their names. Moreover, the audience of a local journalist probably has coffee in the same place as the journalist. Local news is very personal. There is more interest in seeing the box score of the latest Little League games than in the latest Dow Jones average. And when that newspaper goes away, so do the box scores.

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Google makes an incredible amount of advertising money in its News Showcase. The primary payment to the sources of local news is “increased audience size.” It is also called visibility. The agreement between Google and newspapers is that Google will drive more people to their site and the more people that go to that site will see the advertising on the site making that advertising more valuable.

The problem is, for the most part, all the audience gets to is the Showcase page. They never make it to the local news site. And Google hoovers up all the ad revenue. Moreover, the newspapers have no choice but to accept the deal even if it means they will eventually go out of business.

We mentioned money, right?

So it is financial, on both sides. On one side are a handful of widely profitable, multinational corporations using algorithms specifically benefitting misinformation. On the other side are struggling small businesses trying to alert communities about fraud in their city governments. That means the point of this is not the First Amendment of the right to know, it’s about monopolies and their power over small businesses,

I realize this legislation is flawed and is subject to misuse. But I also understand that negotiation is not always a bad thing. This law mandates that negotiation.

However, there is good news in all of this. Google and Meta have fought this battle several times. First in the EU, then to Australia, and finally Canada. Google followed the same playbook and eventually came to the table in each case. Meta has formally decided to de-emphasize news in users’ feeds, leaving them even more open to electoral disinformation and fraud. What many people don’t realize is that Google and Meta are not the only sources of news, local, national, or international.

Articulate silences

Remarkably silent in the debate is Microsoft and all the other niche browser platforms like Brave and DuckDuckGo. Microsoft has even increased its investment in local news. Again, the reasons are financial. When Google decided to de-list news media in the EU, Canada, and Australia, they saw significant drops in daily users while Bing saw a boost. Google downplays the importance of news in feeds, but even the two percent of searches they claim it represents results in billions in revenue for Google.

There are many options to Google News . Follow a trusted news outlet’s website directly. You don’t need to search for it. Sign up for their push notifications and breaking news alerts. Many have their own apps. Apple News is infinitely more usable than Google News. Xitter and Facebook are large, but not the only channel. Mastodon, trustworthy news outlets are available on Mastodon, along with noteworthy journalists like Philip Bump of the Washington Post. The platform is growing slowly, but still growing

Google isn’t a factor in getting me information. If they were “partners” with media that might be a game changer. As it is, Google needs local news sources more than they need Google, or Meta for that matter. People may say they don’t care about news, but when they need it they want it quickly. And even with all the potential misuses of the CJPA, the actual importance of local journalism to the democracies of the world trumps the reservations. Until there is a viable alternative that isn’t managed by massive corporations, the CJPA is a step forward.

Lou Covey is the Chief Editor for Cyber Protection Magazine. In 50 years as a journalist he covered American politics, education, religious history, women’s fashion, music, marketing technology, renewable energy, semiconductors, avionics. He is currently focused on cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. He published a book on renewable energy policy in 2020 and is writing a second one on technology aptitude. He hosts the Crucial Tech podcast.

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