France teaches Alphabet the ABCs of competition fairness

FirbyDigital technology has, for the most part, been a boon to consumers. Think of how digital technology has enabled Uber to break the taxi oligopolies, Amazon to open up the world of online product choices and Airbnb to deliver affordable alternatives to hotel stays.

None of this, however, justifies the use of digital technology to engage in theft.

And yet theft is in effect what large news aggregators like Google have been doing for years to the product of news media outlets.

These companies ‘aggregate’ the hard work that countless journalists and editors have gathered, vetted and sweated over, and then they re-post that content with – surprise! – their own advertising revenue streams reaping the benefits.

Readers naturally figured out pretty quickly that they could get a broad selection of news instantaneously from media outlets around the world online for free, with neither the obligation to buy a subscription or to view the local ads.

In industry speak, it means the business model has become broken. Media outlets that invested heavily in the resources to do proper journalism have watched helplessly as their resources steadily, inexorably dried up.

We’ve seen the result in mass closures of newspapers and news websites, and the gutting of the newsrooms that have managed to keep operating.

With the watchdogs in effect smothered to death, governments at all levels no longer face the daily scrutiny they once did. And the best stories – the ones that require a reporter to walk the beat instead of tracking Twitter trending – go untold.

What’s less obvious to some is the almost incalculable loss in quality of the content that gets delivered: stories written by overworked, and often junior, staff, stories rife with typos because they’re not edited, and – let’s lay the cards on the table – stories that are much more vulnerable to factual error and sometimes even deliberate deception.

There’s been much hand-wringing over what to do about this disaster to our democracy. Media outlets, for sure, have been the authors of their own misfortune by failing to recognize the threats bearing down on them, and then responding too little, too late with some pretty lame attempts to innovate.

Numerous attempts at erecting paywalls have been tried and abandoned, although it’s worth noting that over time they’re gaining ground. Still, any revenue gained from subscriptions is just a small piece of the revenue puzzle that must fit together if news media is ever to get the money it needs to function at a high level.

In Canada, major media groups have implored the federal government to keep pumping out subsidies to help them stay afloat – an idea that’s as appalling as it is outrageous (not to mention pretty much a non-starter with crisis funding related to COVID-19 sucking up breathtaking amounts of public money). We all know – sorry CBC – that media funded by government will one day have to pay the piper.

France, God bless it, has now shown the guts to do what all governments should be doing about these news aggregators. France’s antitrust regulator, the Autorite de la concurrence, guided by a recent European Union law, has ordered Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, to start paying media groups for displaying their content. It argues that the search giant’s practices caused “serious and immediate harm” to the French press sector.

Damn straight they have.

Alphabet has already indicated it doesn’t want to play nice. It previously argued that European news publishers derived significant value from the eight billion visits they receive each month from users who search on Google.

Alphabet has also said it will oppose the new regulation, and – get this – warned that articles, pictures and videos would be shown in search results only if Google wouldn’t have to pay. If a media outlet refuses Google’s terms, only a headline and a bare link to the content will appear.

Search engines such as Google account for between 26 and 90 per cent of traffic redirected on news websites, the competition regulator said, based on data from 32 press publications.

That traffic is “crucial for publishers and press agencies who can’t afford to lose any digital readership given their economic hardships,” the authority said. They had “no other choice than to comply with Google’s display policy without providing financial compensation.”

Is it just me or does Google’s threat sound pretty close to extortion?

As a lifelong news person, I’m heartened by France’s get-tough approach with aggregators. Making Google pay for content it profits from will not solve all the news media’s financial problems, but it’s unquestionably a significant and concrete start.

And it’s so much more attractive than asking taxpayers to subsidize private enterprises. News media need to find their own way out of the revenue darkness. With this new rule, at least they won’t be doing so with one hand tied behind their backs.

If this works, Canada should follow France’s lead and make the aggregators pay here, too.

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

© Troy Media


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