Inside the company’s daring plan to control the news
The greatest trick that Google Corporation ever pulled, was to convince the world it didn’t exist. Although its shareholders know it as a profitable advertising brokerage, the majority of Internet users believe it to be nothing more than a benevolent purveyor of web search, email, and other free online services.
Google is a fierce and formidable competitor. Its network of websites is the Internet’s single most popular destination; it processes more search queries than all its competitors combined, including stalwarts Microsoft and Yahoo; its annual revenues and profits are measured in billions. Through all its successful expansions, Google has worked to maintain an image of simplicity and altruism.
Google’s bungled launch of their Buzz platform illustrated the pervasiveness, and the deceptive nature of this public image. Their initial decision to quietly convert 100 million private email contact lists into an open social network was met with immediate shock and outrage. It was widely regarded as an invitation to espionage and cyberstalking.
Google had chosen to present Buzz with a simplified interface that neglected its users’ privacy concerns. This was a profit-maximizing decision for the Buzz platform: a social network is only as valuable as the user data shared within it. By leveraging their enormous GMail database to expand into a new market, Google hoped to instantly close the gap with, or overtake their new competitors.
Public demand forced them to reconsider this “beta experiment.” Google product managers declared a “Code Red,” and company engineers worked nights and weekends to revamp the Buzz sign-up process. A week later, reporters in the traditional media breathed a sigh of relief, and praised the company for its contrition, and for acting in the broader public interest. According to a popular narrative, Google’s quick turnaround once again demonstrated their commitment to “do no evil.”
Simplifying the news industry
Traditional news media sources are suffering today, due to decreases in print circulation, loss of classified ads, and obsolete business models. Nobody disputes that the future of mainstream news publishing is online, and that Google will continue to lead the transition, extending its own reach and power along the way.
As explained by Google’s chief economist Hal Varian, “Serious reporting… has simply never paid its way.”
What exactly is Google’s role in online publishing today? Although it enjoys an esteemed reputation often reserved for public broadcasting services (with their strict policies against undue commercial influence), Google actually earns its money by placing advertisements.
This is how their ubiquitous AdWords program works: first, Google invites advertisers to bid for the right to display their commercial message, next to a desired set of keywords. Whenever or wherever Google can find those keywords–in web search results, or users’ email boxes, for example–it displays the highest bidders’ ads. Depending on the individual agreement, Google may then debit the advertiser’s account immediately, or only if a user clicks on the advertisement.
In order to gain access to a richer keyword database, Google designed the complimentary AdSense program. Independent publishers who agree to host Google-negotiated advertisements on their own websites are promised a percentage of the resulting AdWords income. There are currently over one million publishers participating in AdSense; only a small percentage of them earn anything near a living wage.
In an era where stories are consumed individually and immediately, rather than as cross-subsidized bundles of daily newsprint, the news is less profitable than ever before. As explained by Google’s chief economist Hal Varian, “Serious reporting…has simply never paid its way. What paid for newspapers were the automotive sections, real-estate, home-and-garden, travel, or technology, where advertisers could target their ads.” Relative to its new unbundled and electronic format, high-quality news is more expensive than ever before.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt confesses that, without the survival of serious journalism, his company’s own future is placed in jeopardy. Google does not consider itself a competitor to the traditional media outlets that provide shelter for good journalism; but it has no interest in directly supporting those outlets either. Instead, Google is working to address what it calls “inefficiencies” in its own online ad placement services.
Consolidation makes sense: increased efficiency is improved profitability. Why should every city manage its own news media organizations, and pay its own support staff, when Google can perform these functions remotely at a lower cost? The principle applies not only to the news industry, but to all electronic communications.
Google has not confined itself to sponsoring the written word, but has also experimented with (or committed to) supporting online maps, streaming online audio and video, spreadsheets and stock tickers, digital photography, medical records, traditional radio and television broadcasts, and even long-distance phone calls. It is all to fulfill Google’s corporate mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
The Beast File: Google
Google must admit that it intends to enrich its shareholders in the process. And we might agree, as a democratic capitalist society, that their corporate success is well-deserved–even if their gargantuan size has tilted the competitive playing field.
But would this be the full extent of our compromise?
Independent news with Chinese characteristics
When Google announced its intent to cease self-censorship in China, in defiance of Chinese law and precedent, they were hailed in the West as champions of human rights and free speech. Few thought to scrutinize the laws Google applies to its own vast publishing empire. As it turns out, Google’s content restrictions are no less oppressive than those applied by the Communists.
According to the longstanding official policies of the Google AdSense program, no publisher is permitted to create content that Google deems violent, mature, or intolerant. Any violation, as determined solely by agents of the Google Corporation, can result in immediate expulsion from the AdSense program.
Google’s editorial policies are no idle threat. According to one indignant former AdSense publisher: “Their entire program is Kafkaesque.”
The Chinese government is criticized for censoring online discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and repression of Falun Gong practitioners. Incredibly, Google forbids these same topics as a matter of official policy. There are no exceptions for news reporting. (Unofficial policy allows these stories on a case-by-case basis, with risk of permanent expulsion born by their publisher.)
When a publisher is ejected from the AdSense program, they lose not only their source of income, but also their online friends and business partners. Google warns participants that, if they dare link to a forbidden work, they risk ejection themselves. Since Google and other search engines use incoming links to estimate a work’s importance, and consequently its proper ranking in search results, ejection from the AdSense program may constitute a de facto banishment from the public web.
Despite numerous requests from its partners, Google has declined to clarify what it considers to be unacceptably violent, mature, or intolerant content. Its precise definitions are either secret, arbitrary, or nonexistent; and the mere threat of enforcement is sufficient to produce a chilling effect.
This is Google’s vision for the future of the news.
Google’s secret trials
These policies are no idle threat, according to one indignant former AdSense publisher, who wished to remain anonymous in fear of retribution. “Their entire program is Kafkaesque. I asked for permission to write news and opinion for my chosen niche; my note was dismissed with a vague injunction to follow the guidelines. After surveying the market, I assumed that I could proceed safely. So I invested hundreds of hours producing and promoting my content.”
“Then they booted me out. An anonymous reviewer stated that I should have followed their guidelines, refusing for the second time to explain what those guidelines actually mean. Meanwhile, dozens of other AdSense websites continue to operate in the same niche, with similar content. I was wrong to place my trust in Google.”
Like any other private media organization, Google Corporation has the right to enforce its own editorial standards. But then again, Google is not like any other media organization. There are already more people in AdSense than in the state of Montana. The size of their audience, and the scope of their current and planned operations is unprecedented. With Google’s control over the flow of information, they are already an international government unto themselves; and theirs is not a rule of law, but of men. They endorse democracy, but deliver simplicity and efficiency instead. And nothing is simpler and more efficient than a dictatorship–at least from the dictator’s point of view.
Mystic philosopher Krishnamurti warned that the devil might come in the form of a search engine; that if we accidentally stumbled upon a piece of truth, the devil would help us to organize it. In its plans for guiding independent journalism, it seems that Google has abandoned the slogan “Don’t be evil,” and embraced “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”