AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
The Federal Trade Commission’s 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 in the FTC’s investigation was whether Google’s search results are rigged to favor its own products and services, and whether that would count as an abuse of its dominance in online searches. 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 that 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 near monopoly in the online marketplace is becoming an unchallenged monopoly in the marketplace of ideas.
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 FTC has largely decided to take the company’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” at face value and let Google regulate itself.
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.
The earliest example of this is the Postal Act of 1792, which allowed newspapers and magazines to circulate in the mail for a nominal fee, much lower than the postage for all other mail. The 1792 Congress, which included founding fathers James Madison and James Monroe, was deeply committed to making sure news circulation wasn’t constricted by commerce. The debate then was not over how much the Postal Service should charge magazines and newspapers, but whether to charge anything at all.
With newer forms of information technology, the government has not done as good a job of carving out a space for the public interest. The Radio Act of 1927, which established the predecessor of the Federal Communications Commission, stopped short of giving the government authority over advertising or networks, the two biggest forces then shaping radio.
The Cable Communications Act, passed by Congress in 1984, just when the cable business was booming, was another lost opportunity. The act took a radically free market tack with cable companies, essentially giving away any public control of the new medium without demanding benefits in return.
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 makes money by selling advertising that appears next to headlines and news story summaries in its search results. Google doesn’t pay news providers for that use of their headlines and summaries, nor does it share the resulting advertising profits with them. Though Google doesn’t sell advertising on Google News, it doesn’t pay for the news aggregated there, either. And there are numerous indirect ways, such as the sale of related keywords and other search data, in which Google happily profits from news content it doesn’t pay for. 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.
French publishers have an uphill battle ahead of them, but at least they are enlisting their government to help. A similar situation is unfolding in Germany, and the European Commission, unlike the FTC, is still investigating Google. EU publishers, unlike their American counterparts, are keenly aware that the survival of paid journalism in the digital age depends in part on enlisting government power to protect it.
If we want robust journalism in the twenty-first century, 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 and show itself as forward-thinking as it was in 1792.
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 online monopoly is certainly not the way to do it. A first step would be to strengthen and reorganize the FCC, 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). It is long past time for an overhaul that arms the FCC with powers relevant to the way communications have evolved over the last seven-plus decades.
We are witnessing with Google and its competitors 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.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated that “Google News makes money by aggregating headlines and news story summaries it doesn’t pay for and selling advertising next to them.” While Google does sell advertising that appears next to headlines and news story summaries in its search results, and also profits from news content indirectly through the sale of related keywords and other search data, it does not sell advertising on Google News. We regret the error.
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