Google Plays Fairer With News

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In an unexpected move, Google is investing significantly in helping some of the major players in the European media industry to do better out of modern news production and distribution. Sabine Pevy, Account Director at Ebiquity Reputation, explores its motives.

At the end of April 2015, Google and several major European news organizations launched a joint Digital News Initiative, described by the search giant as a drive to support high quality journalism in Europe through technology and innovation. Its declared aim is to work with news media companies to increase revenue, traffic, and audience engagement, with Google committed to helping publishers boost income from ads, apps, and analytics. It is also funding research into how people use and access media, and digital skills training for traditional media journalists.

Under this new deal, Google will provide €150 million to European news publishers over the next three years to help them monetize online content and coverage. Founding media partners in the scheme include the Guardian and FT (UK), Les Echos (France), El País (Spain), Die Ziet and FAZ (Germany), and La Stampa (Italy).

News Corp (UK and global) and Axel Springer (Germany) – major players in European news, whose content sits behind paywalls – are notable absentees. Both groups are believed to object to Google’s ‘First Click Free’ policy, which means titles need to provide free access to five articles each day if Google is to index their content. They also oppose Google’s spidering software scraping and copying their content without payment within seconds of publication.

The relationship between Google and traditional, longer-established news media has not always been a happy one in Europe. The latest deal follows a pilot two years ago with French media outlets, who threatened to  deny Google access to their content unless the company paid licensing fees. That Google was prepared to dig so deep to ensure continued access to branded, trusted, original content which consumers clearly find so desirable reflects the realities of search.

With a different outcome, in 2014 some German publishers demanded a financial share from Google for access to their content, which led Google to stop returning news from those publishers in its search results.

“The relationship between Google and traditional, longerestablished news media has not always been a happy one in Europe.”

As a consequence, the German publishers observed a significant decline in traffic, leading to the realization that Google’s news business does not just serve its own interest but benefits publishers too. The publishers withdrew their demands. More recent calls in Spain for a ‘snippet’ tax from Google may well have similar consequences.

This new Initiative also follows last year’s benchmark ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation in Europe, which caught Google unawares – an outcome that led CEO Larry Page to commit the company to becoming more European in its thinking and behavior.

Some suspect that Google’s Initiative is driven more out of self-interest than active support for the European media industry. Critics claim it is designed to make the European Commission back off the search giant, for the Commission has recently accused Google of abusing its monopoly in search and is currently investigating whether the company unfairly bundles its apps with Android products.

Those yet to be convinced by the deal – including those media groups who have so far refused to sign up to it – will be watching keenly to see how the media groups who are involved report Google’s dealings with regulatory authorities at the national and EU level. To refute charges of conflicts of interest, media partners of the Digital News Initiative will be expected to report fairly on the company’s anti-competitive and anti-trust battles.

If Google was hoping to recapture some of its founding ‘Don’t Be Evil’ allure with this Initiative, that was probably hoping for too much. But its act of enlightened self-interest in ensuring continued supply of desirable, sought-after content should be applauded if it helps to secure the medium-term future of some of the world’s best content creators, namely some of Europe’s finest news organizations, and it should therefore be in their best interests too.

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