On Aug. 28, 2015, I posted the second story, “In Europe, Google Fights Back“, in my crowdfunded series “What Does the Google Free Economy Cost You?” The analysis is not the one planned. The first two were meant to be scene-setters for deeper reporting to follow. But Google responded to the European Competition Commission’s state of objections issued about four months earlier. Breaking news took precedent.
What’s missing from the conversation is long-form interaction with mechanical engineer Tim Lewis, who responded on Google+ rather than comment directly to the story. I don’t want the exchange to be lost in the noise, so here it is for your convenient peruse. Rather than block quote long paragraphs, they are color-coded. How nerd is that?
But first, let me cajole you to contribute to the project. The more money raised, the more time I can dedicate to writing stories. The campaign is off to a slow start, but that’s a little by design. I want to build organic momentum rather than take the typical path of rallying people to give early, followed by a long lull, and then a last-minute rush at the end. To receive anything, the campaign must fully fund.
Now, on with today’s debate. Tim in green, me in blue.
I really don’t understand your argument. No one is forcing you to use Google’s products. The New York Times along with several other news outlets does pretty well with a pay wall system, but it’s not as common because most news outlets want their content to get the biggest reach possible. Making the content free to the reader is the best way to accomplish that.
Regarding Android, I really don’t see your point either. It’s extremely easy to replace any of the Google defaults with competing services. You can easily replace Google Maps with Here Maps, Google Search with Bing, the Google home screen with one from either Bing or Yahoo (or some other developer), Google Now can be replaced with Cortana or one of the several other automated assistants available today, etc. The ironic thing is that the situation is quite different on iOS. Apple makes a mapping service, and doesn’t give you a choice for which service is the default. Similarly, it’s impossible to use anything other than Siri for an automated assistant.
Ultimately, the mere presence of a monopoly proves nothing. There needs to be evidence presented showing that the company’s monopolistic position has been used to suppress competition. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find that, especially since if Google was doing such a thing you can be sure the EU would be tearing Google apart as soon as they possibly could for it.
Nowhere does the analysis use the word anticompetitive. I don’t assert that Google’s behavior is anticompetitive but monopolistic. One lesson the Microsoft antitrust case teaches: The tech market is dynamic and growing. Today’s monopoly is tomorrow’s has been. Competition from Facebook, for example, pushes against Google’s core business.
However, a duopoly creates huge perception problems regarding trust. A duopoly also is a ball and chain when companies make decisions favoring the two products in sync, which is one way the creation of Alphabet sets Google apart from other monopolies, with Microsoft being good example in the modern tech sector. The cofounders can eventually break free from logistical and financial dependence on the duopoly.
As for the news industry, as the series will explain later, no site can go behind a true paywall. Google search doesn’t crawl the content the same way. To be visible in search, they must give away the content. That’s the real reason news sites give x number of free reads a month–visibility in Google search. Without a monopoly position, the influence would matter much less.
At the same time, Google controls most of the advertising placed around the content, not the publishers. In journalism, we say conflict of interest when A benefits B, or perceives to. Regulators call it anticompetitive, when company A leverages two or more products for mutual benefit and causes consumer harm.
The series will put some hard numbers and quotables behind some of the quick explanation in my response.
I make no value judgement. For example, Google’s search business is the major disruptor, but not the only one, of the news business. While that negatively impacts journalists, there is strong argument that taking control away from a small number of editors choosing what matters and democratizing the news benefits everyone. The series will explore this, too.
Bottom line is this, when addressing the EU’s antitrust investigations: Can you trust Google to act in your interest as a consumer of its products? Do you trust Google, Tim?
I certainly do trust Google a whole lot more than I trust the EU (especially with them pushing the whole ‘right to be forgotten’ concept). Don’t forget that the EU can be biased, too. Europe hasn’t been able to benefit too much from the tech boom that Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc. created. It’s no surprise that they are jealous and want to cut the American tech companies down to size. Furthermore, I currently trust them more than I trust the other big tech companies. That may change in the future, but until that time, I’ll continue using their products and services.
As far as Google giving away publishers free content, I really don’t understand what you’re talking about. Are you seriously considering the tiny snippets from the text that show up in Google search results actual content from the text of the article? I don’t think I’ve ever even seen an entire sentence in that, let alone enough of a thought to get a sense of what the article was saying. Google News does have a little more text, but still not enough to really compete with the article itself.
Ultimately, if people are going to be willing to go read the content on your site, they have to have some sort of teaser. That is, they have to have enough information to understand what is behind the link to show them it will be worth it for them to click on it, but not so much that they find what they need without clicking on the link. Personally, I think Google has struck that balance pretty well, but I’d be interested to hear what alternative you think would be better. Should it be just the title of the article and nothing else?
If you’re suggesting that something is a problem, you need to provide an alternative means of doing it that you think is better so that the magnitude of the problem can be understood and steps can be taken to fix it. I should also add that the one solution you have provided so far (separating Android and Search) isn’t viable since apart from Search Android makes no money. It is merely a conduit through which Google provides its services.
Oh, and just so you know, when you call Google ‘the leech that feeds off the intellectual property of legitimate content producers’ (among several other things), contrary to what you may like to think, you are in fact making a value judgment, and a pretty harsh one at that.
The Free Economy will get further explanation in the series, but short answer for you now:
- Google commands a global monopoly in search.
- Dominance lets Google influence, or even dictate, certain rules about content distribution if sites want to show up in search.
- A good example of that influence is the no-run Flash mandate for ads. In turning off the switch, Google pushes its own platform as alternative, by its Flash to HTML5 conversion and no off switch.
- As for content producers giving away content, Google controls the largest chunk of online advertising—the majority of the remainder goes to AOL, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the like. This economy determines the value of content, which, as my research shows, must be given away for free to show up in search. Content producers aren’t giving away snippets by the whole package.
So and so on. The series will spell it all out.
The leech thing isn’t a value judgement. Google doesn’t produce much content, but feeds off that others produce. Same could be said about Facebook. What original content does FB produce? To assert that practice is wrong would be a value judgement. I don’t and wouldn’t. As a matter of law, some antitrust jurisdiction might make that determination.
Personally, I see many benefits coming from the Google Free Economy. The news media is a casualty of this economy. Democratization of news could benefit everyone. But the mechanisms in place that Google’s monopoly and search-dependent revenues demand also create a platform for the spread of rumors, lies, and misinformation. Google benefits from whatever search crawls. It’s all the same to the algorithms.
Give the series a chance. Google gives much in terms of innovation and content services that empower everyone. But there are costs—hence the series title.
Oh, come on! You really think that there are serious negative connotations implied in the phrase ‘the leech that feeds off the intellectual property of legitimate content producers?’ I certainly admit that Google doesn’t produce any content. That obviously isn’t their business model. But a leech provides no benefit to the host sucking the blood from it till it dies. Therefore, using it to describe Google implies that they provide no benefit to the publishers (despite having an incredible impact on their readership). Furthermore, the emphasis on the ‘legitimate content producers’ strongly implies that what Google is doing is not legitimate.
As far as Google’s influence goes, forcing the conversion of ads from Flash to HTML5 is probably a win-win for everyone. Flash is full of security holes, and is slow to load, so getting rid of it benefits consumers. Decreasing the load time and eliminating security holes means consumers are less likely to block ads which make advertisers, and therefore publishers, more money. I struggle to see how the elimination of Flash is bad for anyone (except for maybe Adobe). And if you’re merely trying to say that Google has a lot of influence in the industry, then I have to say, yeah, so what? That’s pretty obvious.
Ultimately, I’ll be interested to see the data you present regarding how Google has hurt publishers, but I think it’s more likely that it is the publishers who have hurt themselves. At least that’s the impression I get every time I hear a publisher complaining about people using ad blockers when they are destroying their own site and making it nearly impossible to read their content with the ads they are showing on their site.
Growing up in Maine I had plenty of run-ins with leeches (bloodsuckers, we called them) when swimming in ponds or lakes. I don’t recall them sucking enough blood to kill anyone. But they were sometimes used medicinally. I am rather surprised at your bristling at leech, when my calling Google the Gatekeeper to the Internet is so much stronger and carries connotations, too..
Regarding Flash, Google is being selective. Flash video, which can be insecure, too, is fine, but not advertising. Ads are stopped, but publishers can use AdWords and convert their Flash content to HTML5. Also, to clarify, the company publicly gives performance and battery life, not security, as reasons for ditching Flash.
I’m no fan of Flash or intrusive ads. But the benefit here is as much about Google, if not more. Because: Flash stoppage is selective to ads, Google can boost its ad network, and there is leverage from and benefiting dominance in several product categories. That’s how companies do business. You can’t expect a predator not to hunt, and all successful companies are predatory. I used Flash as example, because its about to start (from September 1) and it demonstrates Google’s influence.
The publishers have hurt themselves, I agree. However, the Google Free Economy encourages—actually rewards—another kind of publishing that feeds off pageviews, clinkbaiting, and aggregation to pollute the Internet with rumors, and misinformation. Yes, there is data to back up these assertions.
Finally, I am a big consumer of Google products. I regard the company as being among the most innovative right now. The best innovation often is highly disruptive, and as stated in the first story in the series disruption will be a major theme. Readers will decide who is better or worse off because of the disruption.
As already stated, about the news media, one way everyone benefits from the disruption is greater democratization of news—that is freeing control from a small number of editorial decision-makers deciding what is news.
Photo Credit: Ariel Waldman