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Optimize this headline for Google*
Alexander Fanta
13 June 2022
published in Issue One

* What is Google?

I.

Say we start a magazine, let's call it The European Review of Books. To get started, we need to collaborate on our manifesto – let’s use Google Docs! Later, to announce our launch, we post a video to YouTube. To keep things simple, our site is hosted on Google Cloud and built with Newspack, Google’s web design tool. We ask readers to contribute via Subscribe with Google. And to earn a little cash, we sell banner advertisements through Google Ad Manager.

While it is theoretically possible for our hypothetical founders to cobble together other platforms, tools, and services—to find a bespoke solution for every necessity of modern publishing—many publishers simply plug into Google’s matrix.

That rise to dominance can seem inevitable, and Google’s power monolithic. Or maybe just atmospheric? Yet its internal machinery is built from dozens of acquisitions and new services created through expensive trial-and-error. For every success, there’s a spectacular failure like the abortive social network Google+. These discreet histories of piecemeal if rapid growth belie Google’s grandiose mission to « organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful ». Google’s wanton disruption of publishing resembles evolution more than intelligent design. It is not easy to understand the role Google plays, or for that matter what Google even is: partner, competitor, benefactor. Journalists, publishers, regulators, and scholars are left grappling with our new, random god.

Making a magazine was pleasantly cumbersome in the 1970s. When the London Review of Books was first published in 1979, editorial staff used scissors, paper and vats of glue to graft printed-out columns of text onto magazine pages. Editors with scalpels cut single lines from their paragraphs and stuck them somewhere else. There were « letters covered in blotches of Tipp-Ex, for which the office name was ‘eczema’ », Susannah Clapp, an early staffer, recalled 40 years later. « No screens; hand-drawn maps for layout; tins of Cow Gum ». The paste-up was then sent to the printers. In a week the magazine hit news-stands. 

The publishing world of old was as dependent on layout-designers as it was on printers. A strike, such as the one that hit the Times and its Literary Supplement in 1979, could derail one magazine and help birth another. The TLS was absent for nearly a year during the strike; the founders of the nascent LRB took advantage of the vacuum.

When the Times’ printers went on strike again, though, in 1986, they were crushed by Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire press baron who had bought the Times five years earlier in his drive to fashion a chain of local papers in Australia into a global news conglomerate. Murdoch understood like no other how to use his papers and TV stations—the Sun, the News of the World and later Fox News—to leverage his influence and expand his business in turn.

But the power of press barons like Murdoch is more fragile than it seems. There are limits. Fox News emerged as an echo chamber for Republicans in the mid-1990s and grew into the most watched TV news source in the United States, yet on the other side of the Atlantic, regulators would ultimately stymie Murdoch’s attempt to dominate private television. As meeting notes later revealed by the Guardian show, even Murdoch’s friend Tony Blair, then prime minister, could not help him clear a joint venture worth 800 million British pounds, between the channel Sky, in which he owned a controlling stake, and British Telecom without accepting conditions set by the European Commission. That was in 1998, the same year two PhD students at Stanford University founded a company called Google LLC in a Californian garage.

In Germany, the media giant Axel Springer, with its tabloid Bild, trades on celebrity gossip, sensationalism, and right-wing politics. Feared and cultivated by politicians, Bild has been the most-read German newspaper for decades. But when, in 2005, it tried to buy its way into the television market by acquiring the TV conglomerate ProSiebenSat.1, it was stopped cold by the courts and by the steadfast German competition authority, the Bundeskartellamt. A year later, Google bought a new video streaming platform called YouTube for 1,65 billion US dollars. Competitors and analysts were sure they had overpaid.

II.

Today, Google is the world’s foremost meta-publisher. It has turned online advertising into one of the most profitable businesses on earth, with itself the primary beneficiary. At the time of writing, Alphabet Inc. – Google’s parent company – is the third-most valuable public company in the world, with a market capitalization of nearly 2 trillion US dollars, while publishers lose print advertising and struggle to fill the shortfall with online ad revenue. With a share of 92 per cent of all European searches, Google remains the single most important driver of visitors to news websites – for some it brings a quarter of all traffic. 

Publications large and small now submit to the discipline of « search engine optimization », a strange new cottage-industry. Newsrooms hire teams of specialists to make inane guesses on how to game Google’s search algorithms. The pseudo-science of search engine optimization has sent journalists and editors scrambling to stuff kicker, headline and subheading with as many keywords as they can fit—all to avoid being unfindable, that strange new form of excommunication. The age of search has heralded the demise of the front-page splash and its political sway. Think of the Sun’s legendary « UP YOURS DELORS » (1990), which epitomized the decades-long British campaign against membership in the European Union. Or the Sun’s brash « It’s The Sun Wot Won it » in 1992, after Labour leader Neil Kinnock lost to Tory John Major. In Germany in 2005, the Bild headline « WIR SIND PAPST » (« We are pope ») distilled a new national self-confidence into hooliganish celebration Joseph Ratzinger’s ascent to the papacy. The Sun countered with « From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi ».

Those publications that have survived the tide of online publishing now seek voluntary contributions from readers. To be a reader today is to feel the steady guilt of closing plaintive pop-up windows. Journalism, like environmental NGOs or dog shelters, has become a cause for philanthropy. Foundation funding for journalism has risen steadily over the past decade; the Press Gazette has calculated a global increase from 105 million US dollars in 2010 to at least 421 million in 2020. The donor list boasts fixtures of the international world of philanthropy – the Ford Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – but the largest single funder of journalism is Google.

Google’s charm offensive was launched in 2013, when it was under pressure from French publishers over shrinking ad revenue and faced calls for a « Google tax » on digital ads. In a deal brokered by president Francois Hollande, the tech giant agreed to create the Fonds pour l’Innovation Numérique de la Presse, an innovation fund for French news media, and thus avoided taxation. This template was so successful that it was expanded in 2015 to the rest of Europe with the Digital News Initiative, later re-branded into the global Google News Initiative. Google has since funneled more than 200 million euros in journalism funding to European organizations alone. The bulk of it went to established newspapers –The Guardian, Le Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – who received no-strings-attached subsidies to finance investment in digital technology: new subscription platforms, community management, visual storytelling tools and the like. This largesse, a kind of development aid, is flanked by funding for journalism training, academic research and industry conferences. Google’s ubiquitous presence in professional or scholarly fora has made it hard to have a conversation about journalism without Google at the table.

Journalism, like environmental NGOs or dog shelters,
has become a cause for philanthropy.

Complementing this economic domination of the publishing industry is a subtle form of influence through academic funding. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, headquartered at Oxford, produces the influential Digital News Report, which is funded by a 1,3-million-pound annual grant from Google. The Reuters report, which draws on data collected from 44 countries, has become an authoritative source on digital news consumption and the economic prospects of publishers. But for understandable reasons the report’s authors avoid discussing how business decisions by Google and Facebook are frequently in conflict with the economic necessities of publishers – a gaping hole that demonstrates how Big Tech’s funding shifts the debate both within industry and academia.

The Reuters Institute itself also receives funding from Facebook, now renamed Meta. While the two tech giants are, ostensibly, fierce rivals in online advertising, authorities in the US, the EU and the UK have been investigating whether a secret deal between Google and Facebook with the Star-Wars-themed nickname « Jedi Blue » was designed to push competitors out of the market for advertisements on publisher websites. Meanwhile, Facebook has emulated Google’s lobbying tactics vis-à-vis the world of journalism. Following the larger tech giants’ footsteps, the (re-branded) Meta Journalism Project offers grants and social media training for journalists, while relentlessly pushing publishers to use Facebook’s advertising products.

By co-opting institutions and individuals within journalism’s discourse about itself, Google and (to a lesser degree) Facebook have shaped the self-perception of the publishing industry. The former journalist Jeff Jarvis, in What would Google do? (2009), scolded journalists as « terrible stewards of journalism » and extolled « Google’s moral of universal empowerment » as « the sometimes-forgotten ideal of democracy ». He is now welcomed as a cheerleader at Google-funded conferences, such as the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe. Alan Rusbridger, ex-editor of the Guardian, warned of the potentially disastrous consequences of Google’s and Facebook’s business model for journalism in his 2018 memoir, Breaking the News, but he has since joined Facebook’s Oversight Board as an arbiter on moderation disputes, netting a six-figure salary. The tech companies’ most important achievement has been not to influence what is reported about them but to alter the boundaries of debate around the journalism's business models. The publishing business has come to accept rather than challenge Google’s gatekeeper role over online publishing as natural; it has internalized this product of Silicon Valley empire-building. 

III.

At this point I should confess that I myself have benefited from Google's largesse. Google funded a stint in the digital development team of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, as well as a six-month fellowship at the aforementioned Google-funded Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford. There, I studied « innovation »: how news agencies across Europe use software to produce machine-written stories. Google did not interfere with my work, nor did I see any editorial interference in the wider organisation. And yet the question lingered: why pour so much money into journalism? The publications that got the cash reported very little about Google’s Digital News Initiative and its motives. Even trade magazines and scholarly publications such as Digital Journalism seemed barely interested in the implications of this multi-million-euro windfall.

Frustrated, my colleague Ingo Dachwitz and I started an investigation that, after several years’ work and dozens of articles, culminated in a study, Google, the media patron, published in October 2020 by the Otto Brenner Foundation in Germany. We found that Google has used its funding as a strategic instrument to court publishers, and to allay worries over emergence as a sort of operating system for journalism. But we kept bumping into the conceptual difficulty of naming Google’s magic money tree. Even the Google managers we interviewed couldn’t quite say whether we should call it philanthropy, lobbying, or something else. When we pressed Madhav Chinnappa, a charismatic BBC-journalist-turned-Google-executive to place Google’s News Initiative on a scale from altruism to self-interest, he put it « somewhere in the middle ». 

Communications scholars have produced surprisingly little new research on the market power of the digital gatekeepers of the media business. No comprehensive study has yet examined the extent to which publishers around Europe rely on services and revenue streams produced by Google and Facebook. Our study included a small-sized and non-representative survey of German publishers, and found that most depend heavily on Google services and are uneasy about entrenching that dependency. Recent scholarship has voiced similar concerns. « If journalism’s dependence on these platform technologies increases, » Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, wrote in 2019, « as seems inevitable, then it raises questions over whether it is healthy to have the press co-opted by systems of knowledge, power, and wealth that rival that of federal and national governments ». In 2020, a report by the EU-funded Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute in Florence concluded that « economic threats to the historical model of financing the traditional media » (i.e. ads) are a « source of increasing concern in relation to media plurality ». For all this hand-wringing, major institutions have failed to provide a clearer picture – much less an institutional response – to the dependency of journalism on Big Tech.

The multifaceted – nay, multidimensional – relationship between publishers and Google has no easy analogy to other challenges the press has faced in its deep history. It makes that traditional ideal of « plurality » rather quaint. Google is not a media mogul who wants to gobble up as much of the news market share as possible, thus eroding media pluralism, nor is Google a nosy advertiser who tries to influence coverage. The involvement of Google and Facebook in the distribution or production of news has so far done little to curtail journalism critical of the tech companies or their practices. Outstanding investigative reporting about Big Tech and its abuses abounds. Rather than influence what the press reports, Google harnesses the how as a horse for its money-making plough. The threat it poses is not primarily to editorial independence, but to economic autonomy. It thrives on a news ecosystem with different sources, all producing fodder for its search engine and more online real estate to place advertising. If it harms media pluralism in the conventional sense, it does so mainly inadvertently, by favoring overwhelmingly established publishers with its strategic gifts. 

Is Google an inside-trader? A spectacular coup in 2007, though little recognized at the time, was Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, a company that offered a marketplace for popular websites such as Myspace to sell advertising. Google today owns the essential infrastructure for buying and selling personalized ads, including the most popular online advertising exchange, AdX, where publishers can auction off space on their websites to customers. This makes Google both seller and intermediary in online advertising exchanges, an arrangement that legal scholar Dina Srinivasan, writing in the Stanford Technology Law Review, likens to insider trading on the stock market. The ones duped, presumably, are ad customers and publishers.

Is it surveillance capitalism? The practice of offering « free » services while harvesting data is a major point of contention for activists and academics campaigning against the erosion of privacy. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), by Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, is the most widely read critique of ad industry practices. Zuboff argues that Facebook- and Google-style surveillance capitalism represents a new economic order: a deplorable business strategy and an assault on human autonomy. But its critique goes only so far. « By seeking to explicate, and denounce, the novel dynamics of surveillance capitalism, » Evgeny Morozov wrote in The Baffler, « Zuboff normalizes too much in capitalism itself. » Morozov’s commentary points to the problem of addressing Google’s power: no solid theoretical framework fully captures the mechanisms by which control over user data translates into economic and political power. 

In a rare attempt to offer a working concept, the scholar Efrat Nechushtai has compared the tech companies’ control over the basic infrastructure of web publishing to a form of regulatory capture. « Facebook and Google, » she observed in 2017, « now influence all three stages of news production: internal and external communications, tools and platforms for crafting stories, and platforms for news distribution. » In Nechushtai’s view, this limits the press’s capacity to exert a quasi-regulatory check on the powerful and could allow the tech giants to put pressure on journalists. Her argument has gotten little attention in academic circles, but drawn to its ultimate conclusion it means that regulatory pressure is needed to address Facebook’s and, especially, Google’s infrastructural might.

IV.

Belatedly, the European Union has started countermeasures against tech companies’ dominance. The charge is led by Margrethe Vestager, a Danish politician and vice-president of the European Commission. As the EU’s leading competition regulator, she has meted out billions of euros in fines to Google, Amazon and other tech companies for alleged market abuses. But while Vestager has achieved notoriety in tech circles (Donald Trump called her the « tax lady » who « really hates the US » for forcing Apple to pay back taxes in Ireland) and is hailed by the European and American tech press as a world-leading regulator, she and her colleagues in Brussels have so far achieved little tangible progress in changing the industry’s practices. 

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is a case in point. Welcomed as a landmark in reining in the privacy abuses of Big Tech companies when it was passed in 2016, GDPR has set a global privacy standard. Yet enforcement—and this is the jagged corner of the EU’s privacy law—is left to national authorities. Since the 1990s, Ireland has lured foreign corporations to set up headquarters in Dublin with sweetheart tax deals. This selective treatment has allowed Apple to pay an effective corporate tax rate of 1 per cent on its European profits in 2003, down to 0.005 per cent in 2014, as the European Commission has complained. Since the tech companies guarantee thousands of local jobs, the Irish government has made sure, through tech-friendly appointees and systematic under-funding, that its Data Protection Commission has all but ground to a halt several major investigations into privacy abuses by Google and Facebook. Ireland, along with Luxembourg, which serves as the EU base for Amazon, frequently serve as lobbyists within the EU institutions for the interests of tech companies, pushing for weaker rules wherever possible.

The EU sees tech companies’ dominance as a two-dimensional issue, a puzzle in which one particular problem neatly fits a singular remedy. But a company like Google is more like a Rubik’s cube, in which the many sides of its operation are intrinsically linked. 

The tech giants understand that they are playing the same game as the news publishers, but from opposite ends. While press barons use their sway over public opinion for economic purposes, Google leverages its economic ties with publishers in the same way it has leveraged them with countries like Ireland – as a lobbying tool that will help protect its monopoly, or its racket, or its hegemony, or its inescapable there-ness, from the grip of regulators. In practice, Google’s political grip is inseparable from its data exploitation and economic dominance. As long as its structure is not confronted – and, if necessary, dismantled – in its entirety, any « solution » proposed by the EU is only tinkering at the edges.

V.

A decade ago, in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, major publishers were calling for special « Google taxes » or copyright levies that would force the tech giants to share revenue with publishers. But those demands have quieted. As the general public has grown increasingly critical of the economic power and political influence of Silicon Valley, the publishing industry, curiously, has mostly stopped worrying and learned to love Google and Facebook. Why?

A reason for the change in attitude is that we are dealing less with a form of insider trading or regulatory capture, than with something both more novel and more archaic. Our historical analogy should not be Wall Street, but the British Raj. We are witnessing the passing of the guard from the moguls of old to the new colonizing power. 

With a market valuation more than triple that of Facebook, Google has created the model for partnership between platforms and publishers. Facebook has played the more aggressive, more visible part than its competitor in cutting deals with cash-strapped media companies. But this does not mean Google is losing in the quest to subdue publishers – it simply can afford to play the longer game.

The impending re-balancing of power between platforms and publishers was palpable in an encounter in 2019, between Mark Zuckerberg and Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer. Axel Springer represents the old world of European publishing: conservative, profit-seeking, entrenched in politics. Döpfner, a music critic turned media mogul who has led the company for two decades, has long served as a power broker and de facto leader of the German publishing industry. Under Döpfner’s watch, Springer has attempted to remake itself into a global player in digital media, divesting from regional newspapers in Germany while buying online-only news brands such as Insider (formerly Business Insider) and, recently, Politico, the favorite publication of lobbyists in Washington and Brussels. Facebook, equally profit-seeking, has remade itself since the election of Donald Trump from a purely growth-driven, purportedly non-ideological organization steered by Zuckerberg’s top lieutenant Sheryl Sandberg, a personal friend of Hillary Clinton, into a more political animal. Inside accounts like An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination (2021) by New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang suggest that Facebook is increasingly driven by voices such as its vice president of global public policy, Joe Kaplan, a former White House official under George W. Bush, who has attempted to align the company with the Republican right. Kaplan has reportedly tried to broker an alliance between his employer and the Trump administration and is said to have frequently interceded on behalf of popular conservatives who violated Facebook’s rules against hateful and misleading content.

Springer’s rapprochement with Facebook is therefore rich in symbolism. It is an unmistakable sign in how far Döpfner – and with him, large parts of the European publishing business – has come in accepting the dominance of Big Tech. Döpfner, who also heads the German publishers’ association BDZV, had long railed against the power of Big Tech. « We are afraid of Google », said in 2014. He called Facebook a « global monopoly » with a « credibility problem ». But five years later, in a chat with Zuckerberg in Berlin, a neatly produced video of which can be found on Facebook’s corporate news site, Döpfner comes across less as an outspoken critic of Big Tech than as a local chieftain seeking to extract concessions from his new digital ruler. « I hope that you want to be a neutral platform that helps that ecosystem to generate money also for others and have that plurality », Döpfner said, more plaintive then threatening, echoing cries for fairness that his company would once have roundly rejected. « Because otherwise, that would be a different society that we live in. »

Meanwhile, under pressure from regulators, the tech giants have made deals to pay selected publishers license fees to display news items hand-picked by human editors. These deals exemplify the newly forged suzerainty between the moguls of old and their new masters. Both Springer and Murdoch’s News Corp have arranged millions in contracts for a product called Facebook News, with lesser sums to flow to a few hundred other publishers in Germany, France, Australia, the US and the UK. And Google, with a promised payout of one billion dollars over three years, has persuaded more than a thousand news publications in a dozen countries, from Brazil to Australia, to provide content for a feature named News Showcase. Showcase amounts to a couple puny news panels hidden in the bowels of the Google News app, but it succeeds in its main goal: to provide a pay-off to publishers, who receive monthly cash payments in return for the permission to display a few tidbits. Leaked contracts suggest Google has tried to use Showcase to curtail possible legal actions to enforce copyright claims. The license money is meant to sway publishers against the need for more regulation, a fee reminiscent of an imperial subsidy paid out to restless barbarians in the borderland. 

Sure, a few Springer-led publishers in Germany are still offering resistance to Google (if not to Facebook) and have filed a complaint to the German competition authority against Google News Showcase. Given the Bundeskartellamt’s reputation as a strong watchdog, this may strengthen their hand in future negotiations. In France, publishers are fighting Google over the terms and size of the payout they are expecting over copyright claims. A likely outcome is a settlement that will augment the payout to a few major publishers. Yet most industry leaders across Europe appear to have quietly acquiesced.

Most industry leaders acrosss Europe appear to have quietly acquiesced.

As for the mightiest chieftain among the press lords, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has agreed to a global licensing deal with Google for all his titles across three continents, for a rumored 50 million US dollars annually. According to a press release heralding « an historic multi-year partnership » between News Corp and Google, the deal will cover licensing, but will also include « the development of a subscription platform, the sharing of ad revenue via Google’s ad technology services, the cultivation of audio journalism and meaningful investments in innovative video journalism by YouTube ». In return, News Corp agrees to provide « trusted journalism from its news sites around the world ». With this sweetheart deal Murdoch, who previously attacked Google and Facebook sharply, has effectively bound his business in an ever-closer union as a supplier to the giants’ content-processing machine – a subservient position that, once assumed, will be hard to escape from. 

The next chapter in the relationship between platforms and publishers is yet to be written, the question of media autonomy yet to be resolved. But perhaps Murdoch and his fellow moguls would be wise to heed the warning given to Murdoch’s fictional counterpart, the scheming media patriarch in the TV show Succession (the theme song of which, rumor has it, was played at Murdoch’s 90th birthday party). In the second season, the aging press baron’s chief counsel tells him to sell off his print and media empire before it succumbs to the new realities of the market. Filling his voice with foreboding, he gives the friendly grip of Google a sinister spin. « Tech is coming … Tech is here … Tech has its hands around your throat. »

Thumbnail: Cropped version of Typist met koptelefoon, Fotopersbureau Het Zuiden; City Archives' s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands - CC BY-SA. Via Europeana.eu.

The Guardian, in a series of test purchases in 2016, found that in the worst-case scenario only 30 per cent of ad spending actually reached the publisher hosting the ad. Even after several shifts in the ad market, Google’s average share of every ad dollar spent in its network is « as high as 42 percent », a recent antitrust lawsuit by US state attorneys alleges. This charge is heaped on publishers, who have little choice but to use Google’s AdX, or its largest rival OpenX.

As leaked papers from talks between member states, published by my employer netzpolitik.org and by the journalist collective Investigate Europe have shown, those two countries have – so far unsuccessfully – tried to limit the scope of a planned EU law, the Digital Markets Act, that aims to curb some anti-competitive practices by tech platforms.

A scandal at Springer in October 2021 ousted Bild editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt over allegations of sexual misconduct, yet Döpfner’s position has remained firmly entrenched despite allegations that he suppressed revelations of the scandal in a rival publication.