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.