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How Google News Upends the Net Neutrality Fight

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As net neutrality finally comes to a head in Washington, its longtime champion, Google, is becoming a poor poster child for its cause. Despite the search firm’s charge to protect content owners from the evil grip of broadband’s gatekeepers, content owners are increasingly complaining it’s Google that wields too much control over them — especially regarding news.

Animosity toward Google in the media industry — already simmering among those who see the Internet as killing the news business — reached a new high last week at the World Media Summit in Beijing, where News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch warned, “Aggregators and plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content.”

“We will no longer tolerate the disconnect between [those who report the news] and those who profit from it without supporting it,” added Tom Curley, president of The Associated Press. “Crowd-sourcing Web services such as Wikipedia, YouTube and Facebook have become preferred customer destinations for breaking news,” he said, though Twitter is obviously a more trusted news-breaker than Wikipedia, and the real culprit both executives were clearly thinking of was Google.

Google’s uniquely towering position in the news industry — a media giant that, for the most part, is not a content creator — juxtaposes its historical stance in the net neutrality debate because, despite its insistence that broadband providers not be allowed to discriminate one source of content from the next, discriminating content is what Google does all day long. It grants greater visibility to some stories and buries others based on its own preferences. And while it may not have wires affixed to American homes like the big telcos, its domination of the search market has led publishers to the realization that they must write their stories the way Google likes them. So, just by distributing the news, Google is changing the way it is written.

Much of the exact criteria Google News uses to rank news stories remains a mystery, but lately the company has been offering pointers to writers on how to please its algorithmic eye. (Imagine what net neutrality advocates would say if AT&T executives had given pointers to web site owners on how to shape their content to give it the best odds of favorable distribution over their network.) For example, Google gives more weight to a story if it is duplicated by several other sources, leading to the criticism that Google is rewarding herd mentalities at the expense of diverse voices. It also gives greater prominence to a news story if it is cited by multiple other stories, but as everyone competes for that prominence, writers are discouraged from granting those citations to rivals and encouraged to plagiarize.

Google’s advice to publishers wanting to rise above it all is to create “unique” content, but of course, since its search engine measures a story’s importance in large part by how much it is copied by others, is it really rewarding “unique” content? Google also gives preference to what it calls “trusted sources” without defining what that means (again, imagine AT&T assuring users that “trusted” sites would be given preference). Where multimedia is involved, for example, one of Google’s “trusted sources” is YouTube, which it owns. And here’s another mixed signal: Although Google has proposed “freemium” models for news media, its search engine conflicts with premium content to some degree, since it can’t crawl pages if subscriptions are required.

One of the big ironies here is that Google doesn’t really want to be the world’s news editor. The Google News effect is just a natural byproduct of its market power. It’s not the villain that it has painted its opponents in the net neutrality debate to be. But the more Google warns about companies with too much control over the web, the more scrutiny it will draw upon itself as exactly one of those companies.

Question of the week

Should Google have to pay news publishers for ranking their stories?