Google Is Changing Its Relationship With The News Industry As European Rules Approach

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Four of the most prominent trade associations representing the news industry argue in a letter sent Monday to Google that the tech giant is screwing them over all under the guise of forced compliance.

Google has recently been announcing changes to the way publishers can use its products and features, like advertising platforms, ostensibly as a means to abide by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a set of rules set to take effect May 25. The regulations, while created overseas, can conceivably affect U.S. publishers even if they only have a very small amount of readers within the EU’s jurisdiction.

The news business groups directed their letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, arguing that he and his company are going too far in their alterations by harming publishers, which own and create content that the tech giant ultimately needs.

“Your proposal severely falls short on many levels and seems to lay out a framework more concerned with protecting your existing business model in a manner that would undermine the fundamental purposes of the GDPR and the efforts of publishers to comply with the letter and spirit of the law,” leaders of Digital Content Next, European Publishers Council, News Media Association, and News Media Alliance collectively wrote.

Under the GDPR rules, all websites must acquire even more explicit permission before obtaining and using data in certain ways. Google essentially says it will be the controller of the personal data it receives from publishers and their respective pages. But when it comes to gaining consent, the onus, both practical and legal, is on the publishers, a purported attempt to make publishers an “independent controller” of users’ personal data.

“Confusingly, Google has called this a ‘controller-controller’ policy. This evokes ‘joint-controllership,’ a concept in the GDPR that would require both Google and publisher to jointly determine the purposes and means of processing, and to be transparent with each other,” PageFair, a startup that protects website owners from ad-blocking technology, among other endeavors, wrote on a blog post. “However, what Google proposes is not joint-controllership, but rather independent controllership for the publisher on the one hand, and for Google on the other.”

“It is not clear why a publisher would choose to do this, since it would enable Google to leverage that publisher’s audience across the entire web (severe conflation of purposes notwithstanding),” the post continues.

The software company directly references comments made by the head of Digital Content Next.

Also, “you decide how and when that data may be made available to others and do not provide any details about how the data will be used by Google,” the message to the tech giant reads. “By imposing your own standard for regulatory compliance Google effectively prevents publishers from being able to choose which partners to work with.”

Failure to comply with Google’s own rules will result in a suspension of access to its services, which many content creators rely on for purposes of reach.

“Further, your proposal notes that Google may stop serving ads on publisher sites if you deem their consent mechanism to be insufficient,” the letter continues. “If Google then dictates how that mechanism would look and prescribes the number of companies a publisher can work with, this would limit the choice of companies that any one publisher can gather consent for, or integrate with, to a very small number defined by Google.”

Overall, it appears that Google would be compelling publishers to gain clear permission from users for the different ways their data can be used, but without the legitimate ability to fully notify website visitors because it doesn’t know how the tech company will eventually utilize it.

“Google is demanding things that are impossible of publishers, and doing so at the eleventh hour,” Dr. Johnny Ryan of PageFair told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “So I think the letter makes a lot of sense.”

Such organizations and the larger media industry have long protested the effective duopoly Google and its Silicon Valley competitor Facebook have over the digital advertising market. The two tech companies account for roughly 90 percent of the growth in new advertising revenue, according to the analyst site eMarketer, and earn more than half of all global ad dollars.

The New Media Alliance, which includes behemoths like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as its members, petitioned federal lawmakers last year as the profit tides began to grow more stark. Representing more than 2,000 newspapers in the U.S., NMA argued that competition rules on the books disallowed them from acting together, thus directly enabling the dual-powerhouse to materialize and persist.

“The two digital giants don’t employ reporters: They don’t dig through public records to uncover corruption, send correspondents into war zones, or attend last night’s game to get the highlights,” David Chavern, president and chief executive of the NMA, wrote in an op-ed at the time. “They expect an economically squeezed news industry to do that costly work for them.”

NMA wasn’t the first media entity to protest the alleged hogging of digital ad money.

Press Gazette, a British media outlet, launched a petition in April in an attempt to stop Facebook and Google from “destroying journalism.”

“We are concerned that your commercial dominance will drive news publishers who increasingly rely on digital advertising out of business,” the petition reads, directly addressing the two companies. “This will be bad for you (because you will no longer be able to use their content) and bad for society because we will all be less well informed.” (RELATED: Google, Facebook Are Super Upset They May No Longer Be Able To Sell Your Internet Data Without Permission)

And the ire cuts across party lines. Respectively, both CNN and News Corp (Fox) bosses Jeff Zucker and Rupert Murdoch expressed their serious skepticism over Google and Facebook’s relationship with publishers and news agencies. Media mogul Tina Brown, formerly of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, tried making the case that the two massive companies should establish a super-fund for traditional media, after stating how she was “very angry and upset” at them.

The letter sent Monday exemplifies deep-seated concerns for an industry gradually adapting to an increasingly digital-dominated environment and an all-powerful Google.

While Ryan said that “publishers stand to gain much from the GDPR” and his firm believes that Google’s apparent dedication to certain privacy measures seems positive, its “new consent policy is fraught with issues that make it impossible for publishers to adapt.”

Google said it has always asked publishers to get consent for use of their ad tech, and that now it’s merely updating that requirement so it can be in accordance with the GDPR.

“Because we make decisions on data processing to help publishers optimize ad revenue, we will operate as a controller across our publisher products in line with GDPR requirements, but this designation does not give us any additional rights to their data,” a Google spokeswoman told TheDCNF. “We’re working closely with our publisher partners and are committed to providing a range of tools to help them gather user consent.”

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