On 21 April 2021, the staff and editors of Newspapers & Technology listed a series of recent lawsuits brought by news companies against Facebook and Google. They asked the question – whether these lawsuits can work? Also pointed out was the increased US Department of Commerce pressure to enforce anti-monopoly laws. (https://newsandtech.com/)
Google and Facebook have faced regulation in the past two years from the Australian government and from France in the European Union. The Indian Newspaper Society has also chimed in with a fairly half-hearted and desultory note but there does not really seem any leadership among the Indian dailies to fight with Google or Facebook on whom they seem to be relying for traffic and some revenues.
In August 2020, the Australian government issued an ultimatum (or suggested) to Google to develop a bargaining code with its newspapers for fairer sharing of revenues. Google responded by saying it would blank Australia out of its search engine. Seeing the Australian government not likely to give in, in defense of its media businesses, to some extent Google has backed down.
On 4 February 2021 Google launched its ‘News Showcase’ in Australia, stating, “Already more than 70 Australian publications have signed up to the platform, including The Canberra Times, The Illawarra Mercury, The West Australian, The Saturday Paper, Crikey, The Dubbo Daily Liberal, The New Daily, InDaily, The Conversation, Seven News, The Kalgoorlie Miner and The Geraldton Guardian among others. In just over two weeks since launch, our Australian partners had more than two million views of their content with News Showcase.”
In end November 2020 Google gave in somewhat to the French government as well. As we wrote at the time, Google announced that it has agreed with six French news publishers to pay for content. The development comes after years of uncertainty for French publishers and the future of neighboring rights in Europe. Le Monde, Courrier International, L’Obs, Le Figaro, Liberation, and L’Express are the first named signatories.
“We have signed several individual agreements, which reflect the principles of universality, transparency, and respect for the law on which we rely in our discussions …,” said Google France chief Sebastien Missoffe on Google’s blog. The announcement comes about a month after a Paris appeals court ruled Google must continue to negotiate with French news publishers over “neighboring rights.”
The Indian news companies are still mediating
The Indian newspapers have not taken Google to court. However, in a letter dated 25 February 2021 and addressed to Google India and its country manager Sanjay Gupta, the INS president L Adimoolam requested Google to pay for news generated by the Indian newspapers. The letter makes clear that the Indian newspaper industry collectively employs thousands of journalists and photographers on the ground at considerable expense. Apart from news gathering and verifying information, its editorial personnel process, curate, and present the news in context.
However, on the whole – one of the most powerful national media in the world, with print readership still growing, is perplexed by its digital transition, and its complicit relationship with Google and Facebook. And the government itself stands compromised as does Facebook by the expose in the Wall Street Journal of its India social media coziness with the head of the government and an avowed policy to go soft on Modi. Ironically, much of the Indian press is under relentless pressure from the Modi government and several state chief ministers – to praise instead of condemning the mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.
News & Tech’s update on lawsuits and ‘Jedi Blue’
News & Tech’s recent update (dated 21 April 2021), goes on to state, “Publishers of 125 newspapers in 11 states filed or announced suits against Google and Facebook on Monday, claiming the tech giants have unlawfully monopolized the digital advertising market and engaged in an illegal secretive deal, nicknamed ‘Jedi Blue,’ to throttle competition.
“Fourteen complaints were filed or announced by publishers from Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Mississippi, New Jersey, Indiana, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware, said a press release from West Virginia-based Fitzsimmons Law Firm (see complaints).
“Publishers filing suit on Monday: AIM Media, Brown County Publishing Company and Multi Media Channels Clarksburg Publishing Company, d.b.a. WV News; Coastal Point; Eagle Printing Company; Ecent Corporation; Emmerich Newspapers; Flag Publications; Gale Force Media and Journal Inc.
“In addition, WKTimes and Pinnacle Communications have announced their intention to file similar suits.
“The newspaper publishers are represented by a national coalition of attorneys: Paul Farrell Jr. and Mike Fuller of Farrell & Fuller; Paul Geller, Stuart Davidson, David Mitchell and Steve Jodlowski of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd; Clayton Fitzsimmons, Bob Fitzsimmons and Mark Colantonio of Fitzsimmons Law Firm; and John Herman and Serina Vash of Herman Jones.
“In January 2021 an antitrust suit against Google and Facebook was filed by HD Media, a West Virginia-based company that publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch (Huntington).
“Those actions follow government-led suits. In December, a bipartisan coalition of 38 states filed suit against Google, with a focus on Google’s search engine (see complaint). Colorado’s Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser and Nebraska’s Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson led that effort. That same month, ten states, in an effort led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, filed suit against Google (see complaint, commentary). The U.S. Department of Justice and eleven states filed an antitrust suit against Google in October (see press release, complaint). More states joined the suit later.
“Google and Facebook denied the ‘Jedi Blue’ allegations in the government and HD Media suits, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“Fox Business reported in December that four private companies also filed two suits against Google alleging monopolistic behavior: Sweepstakes Today with one suit and Genius Media Group, The Nation and The Progressive with another.
“A bipartisan group of lawmakers in March reintroduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. The bill would “provide a limited antitrust safe harbor for news publishers to collectively negotiate with Facebook and Google for fair compensation for the use of their content,” says the News Media Alliance. House Antitrust Chairman David Cicilline (D-RI), Ranking Member Ken Buck (R-CO), Senate Antitrust Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator John N. Kennedy (R-LA) introduced the bill.
However, in India, all the Wan-Ifra and INMA Conferences are supported and openly sponsored by Google and Facebook, and even the so-called alternative media event called Media Rumble is sponsored by Google and Facebook. Many of the journalist training programs are also part of activities of the two companies that are being criticized by publishers for depriving them of their rightful revenues. When Wan-Ifra and INMA should be taking Google and Facebook to task, not only are they complicit but they are going one step further and advocating the use of ‘paid news’ as a revenue stream for mainstream news media.
This is a worldwide phenomenon and as News and Tech points out, “Meanwhile, Facebook and Google are throwing money at the news industry and the industry is accepting it. Facebook and Google both pledged to invest $1 billion each in the industry. In February, Facebook said it’s invested $600 million since 2018 to support the news industry and plans at least $1 billion more over the next three years.
“In October 2020, Google announced “an initial $1 billion investment in partnerships with news publishers and the future of news.” Through its Google News Initiative, Google has already invested in a slate of projects. The company has launched its News Showcase in more than a dozen countries, including Brazil, the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Argentina and Australia.”
India weakens democracy by weakening the courts and media
While one has to accept that the news business is as competitive as any other and lost both its innocence and its cover as the ‘fourth estate’ as well as its revenue to the digital biggies, the remedies cannot be half-hearted. Simultaneous to the defence of the media ecosystem, the erosion of ‘democratic values’ and freedom of expression will have to be fought for once again in courts that in several democracies have been packed by right-wing authoritarian governments. The style of the Indian government is to simply hold up the appointment of judges nominated by the judiciary to both choke the courts and to make clear who is answerable to whom.
Moreover, it is worth reminding ourselves of the Hindustan Times editorial on 17 August 2020. “This newspaper [The Hindustan Times] has consistently argued that large digital media companies — particularly Facebook and WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) — not only threaten the current media ecosystem in India but also pose a serious danger to Indian democracy. They provide a platform for fake news that has misled citizens and created information asymmetry; they turn a blind eye to hateful content, which has translated into violence, lynching, and vigilantism; they create an uneven playing field which can affect democratic choices; they take money and promote targeted content which can skew voting behavior and elections; and with their predatory commercial practices, they threaten other sources of genuine news and information. While some argue that these companies have deepened democracy and enabled more citizens to participate in everyday discourse, this does not hold true anymore, for Facebook’s practices have eroded the quality of democracy, not just in India, but elsewhere in the world too.”