Pando

Google demonstrates its power over the press by cowing German publishers

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 23, 2014

From The News Desk

The last few months have brought a lot of talk about how Facebook and its algorithms control the media landscape by rewarding publications for following trending stories, prioritizing light content over hard news, and worrying more about a story's sensationalism than its accuracy or implications.

Meanwhile, another tech company has been quietly manipulating the press and fighting to keep its control over the media landscape, and it's done so with nary a complaint from many journos. It used the press to fight a law it didn't like. It expanded its influence from one mobile platform to another with a new application. And now it's convinced the only publications willing to fight for themselves that their battle is futile, prompting them to drop their suit against the company.

By now you've probably guessed that I'm talking about Google, the great decider of what can be found online and what languishes in obscurity. The company did just what I described above when it convinced the press and the public that the right to be forgotten infringed on the right to a free press. It also released a News and Weather app for iOS and eventually made German publishers believe that their lawsuit seeking payment for the snippets shown on Google News was no longer worth pursuing, leading to its withdrawal today.

The publishers never really had a chance. Google doesn't display advertisements on its News product, and no one forced them to allow the company to excerpt their stories. Indeed, Google pulled the excerpts from several large German newspapers in the beginning of October, making it clear that the company thinks publishers need the traffic driven by Google News more than Google needs the article snippets for which publishers are so desperate to be paid. Now those same publications have pulled their lawsuit because of Google's "overwhelming market power."

It's similar to the problem posed by Facebook, which is widely regarded as the single-biggest referrer to news websites in the world, and its algorithms. Publishers need to get pageviews, and in order to do that they need to make sure Facebook users see their stories, which then requires these outlets to pander to algorithms that the company can change without warning. It would be foolish not to appeal to these users in a media climate that leads even publications like the New York Times to cut more than 100 staffers after a few years of newsroom expansions.

The difference is that Facebook controls which breaking stories its users read; Google controls those same stories in addition to online archives, older reports, and other information. As Mark Ames explained after Google fought so desperately against the "right to be forgotten" ruling:

It seems to me that this—Google’s monopoly power to discriminate information, to decide what we know and what we won’t know, and how accessible or inaccessible that information is— is the real relevant story to the EU controversy over the right to be forgotten. This sort of power goes well beyond abstract principles about freedom of speech, and into the mundane, existential power over businesses, industries, jobs, and the political economy. Why should we allow one company so much power over our privacy, and over competing businesses, jobs, sectors? How is that in the interests of all the world’s non-shareholders of Google Inc?
Facebook's effect on the media is worth criticizing. But it shouldn't be the only tech company mentioned whenever someone wants to complain about the media pandering to one algorithm or another -- and it certainly shouldn't be seen as more dangerous than Google, which has been actively manipulating the press to further its own goals instead of merely acting as a conduit through which people discover news articles. Facebook might be bad, but Google is even worse.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]