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Editorial: Google's hardball tactics against California news outlets show why it should be regulated

Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

Whatever happened to Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto?

That corporate maxim is apparently gone, and the Internet behemoth has decided to display its super villain side. The latest example is a campaign in California to demonstrate just how easily the company could crush news outlets if state lawmakers dare to pass a law requiring that tech companies, such as Google, share advertising revenue with the journalists who produce much of the content on their platforms.

Google announced last week that it would remove links to California news websites from search results. The company portrayed the move as a “test” to prepare for the possible implications if the California Journalism Preservation Act passes. The company has not said how long or how widespread the test will be.

We’re not fooled and neither should anyone else be who cares about the survival of independent news reporting.

The California Journalism Preservation Act is supported by the California News Publishers Association and the News/Media Alliance, of which The Times is a member.

Google’s announcement was clearly intended as a threat to news organizations and state lawmakers to stand down — or else. Specifically, Google could shut news organizations out of the world’s primary search engine, making their content difficult to find and imperiling their existence. It was also a show of force to lawmakers to let them know that attempts to regulate Google would not be tolerated.

Google certainly isn’t the first company to play hardball in politics or business. However, this is more than lobbying lawmakers. Google has a near-monopoly on online search, accounting for 90% of the market, and many people find their news by conducting searches. Removing local news outlets from its search results means Californians will not be able to find important information about what’s happening in their communities and with their government. That undermines democracy, which relies upon an informed citizenry.

Given the power of Google and other major tech platforms, why would news outlets take on this fight? Because the status quo is unsustainable. It’s important to understand how most news organizations fund their reporting, and why there’s a national and worldwide effort to press Google, Meta and other major platforms to share advertising revenue with the companies and people producing news content.

 

News outlets rely on revenue from advertising. When people click on a link to view a story on a news website, the outlet gets a portion of the revenue from ads that appear next to the story. Google argues that it supports news operations by linking to stories, which helps drive traffic to news websites. That’s true. But it and other platforms increasingly cull facts from and post snippets of stories in response to search or to fill social media feeds, eliminating the need for people to click through to the news website. This means the company that pays to produce that news story won’t get the ad revenue associated with it.

Google, in particular, relies on news content for its search results. Try searching “Shohei Ohtani” or “earthquake” and see how many results are from news organizations. It’s a lot. Yet the news outlets, whose reporters, editors and photographers produce those stories, are not being paid for the use of their work. That’s a major reason why so many newspapers, magazines and other news operations have been forced to lay off staff or shut down in the last few years.

The California Journalism Preservation Act would require that large platforms compensate news outlets for the use of their content. The bill by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) was inspired by similar laws passed in Australia and Canada. It would establish a right for news companies to receive a “journalism usage fee” for their content, with the fee set through an arbitration process. The bill requires news companies to spend at least 70% of the revenue on reporters and news staff.

Wicks introduced the bill last year, but it was delayed so lawmakers, news organizations and tech companies would have more time to work on the details. There are still concerns, including how such a law could benefit big out-of-state news organizations at the expense of smaller local news operations. Those are problems to be solved but they shouldn’t stop negotiations or good-faith efforts to come up with a workable compromise before the first state Senate hearing in June.

That’s why Google’s decision to cut off California outlets now is so jarring — and it may have backfired. Lawmakers don’t like being bullied. Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire blasted the company, calling the move “clearly an abuse of power and demonstrates extraordinary hubris.”

Indeed, Google’s power flex demonstrates how much this one corporation controls access to information. If lawmakers weren’t concerned about that before, they should be now.


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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