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article imageOp-Ed: Google vs Murdoch — When giants disagree

By Paul Wallis     Sep 25, 2014 in Internet
Sydney - A recent open letter from Rupert Murdoch to the European Commission accuses Google of being anti-competitive. That’s not good news for Google, which is currently under anti-trust investigation in the EU.
Google responded by answering every line of Murdoch’s letter in detail.
Some of the accusations made by Murdoch sail pretty close to the wind, including the statement that Google was a “platform for piracy and the spread of malicious networks”. If you’re getting the impression that Murdoch isn’t one of Google’s biggest fans, he’s been complaining about Google’s “news aggregator” service on Google News for nearly a decade.
Google responded with a line by line rebuff, in an article called Dear Rupert on its Google Europe blog. Starting with the first line of Murdoch’s letter, which reads “The Internet should be a canvas for freedom of expression and for high quality content of enduring value”, a testimony to the inherent value of FOX News, Google systematically addresses each issue.
The arguments
The two parties are never going to agree on Google’s role online. Google is seen as a monopoly by some, mainly, and very ironically, because of its success. Those who may not remember the early internet should know that Google won the battle of the search engines, which is why it’s in its current dominant position.
The broader issues are all value based, with a few huge issues of principle and some major polarizations.
The internet as a canvas for “freedom of expression” is one of the lines which lead straight to another issue. There’s no commercial content online? It’s all about starry eyed idealists, discussing philosophies? News Corp works for no other reason?
The internet is a gigantic, highly diversified market. Many people make a living “expressing themselves”, notably Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and a few football stadiums full of others. Mass media makes a lot of money out of this process. Why shouldn’t anyone else?
Online content, whatever it is, is either actual commercial content or potential commercial content. Whether or not it’s monetized, or how it’s monetized, is up to publishers. It’s not up to search engines. A search can’t tell you what you want to look at, let alone what to buy. It simply ranks the most relevant.
The comment about Google being a “platform for piracy and the spread of malicious networks” also misses a basic point. Piracy is common online, and has nothing to do with search engines or anything related to searches.
Are the makers of classified ads parties to a crime?
Are they in a position to verify the character of advertisers?
Copyright infringement is now more common because it’s a lot easier. Google says they take down infringing materials within 6 hours. To give you some idea of the scale of the issue, they removed 222 million pages from Google search in 2013. They also took down a page infringing (and trying to sell) my copyright materials, including an entire book of mine.
The point is that the statement that Google acts as a “platform” for piracy is simply wrong, almost the diametric opposite of the case, in one sense. Legally, Google is at risk in these situations, not immune. It’s a potential victim, if it’s accused of being a party to piracy. Pirates do Google, and everyone else, no favors at all.
(I don’t know who’s advising Murdoch, but the terminology used in that letter on this subject leaves a lot to be desired. It borders on defamatory, almost as if Google were complicit to the piracy problems. This is obviously unintentional, but it’s a lousy choice of words.)
News Corp makes one point directly regarding Google’s impact on its own content:
Google is commodifying the audience of specialist publishers and limiting their ability to generate advertising revenue. Data aggregators attempt to sell audiences at a steep discount to the original source, for example, access to 75 per cent of The Wall Street Journal demographic at 25 per cent of the price, thus undermining the business model of the content creator.
This issue is highly questionable, but it’s an important commercial issue. This isn’t about accessing the WSJ itself. The WSJ is paywall-protected. You can’t access WSJ commercial product through a Google search. “Selling audiences” means selling advertising. If you want a list of people who access the WSJ, you can get it from the online advertising lists, which are generally derived from adware cookies, or other similar, specialized software.
Basic online searches don’t generate this sort of data, except in a pretty clumsy, mass data way. Cookies are much more efficient, and ubiquitous. Advertising agencies, which can generate multiple lists on practically anything, make a lot of money out of these lists.
This is an important issue. Advertising is high value commercial property, and Google says they work with publishers to protect their content and maximize their advertising revenues. Google, in fact, has more to gain by not derailing this gravy train, because ads are also major cash sources for Google. They’re on the same page here, just seeing things very differently.
The final point in Murdoch’s letter is an interesting, if debatable point, that Google “undermines the business model of content creators”. For real content creators producing actual media product, working at sweatshop rates in comparison to the fantastic sums paid for mediocre media, this is an interesting, if rather gruesome, take.
Excuse a slight digression here-
This sudden paternalistic interest in protecting content creators is laughable, if with a few winces as well. What’s the real commercial value of content? If you work for hours to produce online content, get paid a few bucks, while someone else makes billions, your sense of being “undermined” tends to be aggravated, severely. Rates for content creation can be truly grotesque, and this passes entirely without comment from the Writer’s Guild or anyone else.
As a writer, I can make 1c a word or $1 a word. Content creators tend to be pretty mercenary in this environment. I have 8 million commercially published words online. Which is likely to help my business model more, $80,000 or $8 million? Which factor is undermining the real values of content creation, searches, publication, or a cheapskate culture which pays peanuts while making billions?
This is like a manufacturer getting paid 1c per fridge sold at retail prices. It would be nice to think that all these high minded theories had some practical application, but who in the business of actual content creation could possibly believe it?
OK, back on topic-
Google is not in a position to be some sort of arbiter of its market role. The market has decided its role. This role is governed by free enterprise “market forces” to the nth degree. Commercial success or failure is dictated by the market.
Google is not a police force. It has no statutory powers. It can only enforce its own rules, not laws. It can comply with laws, and has visibly done so, and more. Google invented Copyscape to help content creators fight copyright infringements.
Google makes revenue through a range of commercial operations. If Google isn’t “allowed” to do business, doesn’t that create a precedent for others?
Ad revenue is everybody’s business in media. Changing the rules to suit a preference doesn’t lead to better rules; it leads to different versions of the same problems. Protecting your client base is one thing; becoming a sole source is in effect doing what Google is accused of doing.
My advice to the European Commission in this case would be to evaluate like a court:
1. What injury has been done by Google, and to whom?
2. If so, can it be quantified in dollar terms, or otherwise put in perspective?
3. If such injury occurred, was it as a direct result of an action or practice of Google?
Frankly, I don’t see that bitching about market realities makes for a better, fairer or safer, market. Google is the only show in town for a reason. The global market is quite used to the current situation. You don’t demolish Las Vegas because someone made or lost a few bucks. You might raid the place occasionally to weed out a few undesirables, but that’s it.
Google isn’t the problem. It ain’t broke. It doesn’t need fixing. It needs safeguards, not chains.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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