Competition Commission of India orders probe of Google’s news practices

Indian Digital News Publishers Association scores in first round

The Competition Commission of India has ordered a probe on Google's unfair practices, taking up a submission by the Digital Publishers Association
The Competition Commission of India has ordered a probe on Google's unfair practices, taking up a submission by the Digital Publishers Association

On 7 January 2022, the Competition Commission of India directed a probe against Google concerning allegations of abuse of its dominant position raised by the Digital News Publishers Association, an organization comprising the digital platforms of some of the leading Indian newspapers and media groups. It includes platforms and news media organizations such as Eenadu, Malayalam Manorama, Bennett Coleman, Indian Express, NDTV, India Today, and the ABP group.

The DNPA has submitted information under Section 19(1)(a) of the 2002 Competition Act against Alphabet Inc., Google LLC, Google India Private Limited, and Google Ireland Limited. The CCI noted that Google had prima facie abused its dominant position in providing its news aggregation services, and ordered a probe in the matter.

Our readers may be aware that Google has already been compelled by the competition commissions of the governments of Australia, France and recently Germany to come up with a fairer way of sharing revenues with news publishers. In other news markets, news publishers have resorted other types of law suits, but the most successful strategy thus far has been to cite Google’s unfair practices to competition commissions in various countries and news markets.

The CCI’s order read in part, “In a well-functioning democracy, the critical role played news media cannot be undermined, and it needs to be ensured that digital gatekeeper firms do not abuse their dominant position to harm the competitive process of determining a fair distribution of revenue amongst all stakeholders. Therefore, the alleged conduct of Google appears to be an imposition of unfair conditions and price, which, prima facie, is a violation of Section 4(2)(a) of the Act.”

The primary allegation raised by the DNPA is that more than 50% of the total traffic on the news websites is routed through Google, and it being the dominant player determines which news website gets discovered. Although the content is produced by the news media platforms, online search engines such as Google leverage a sizable portion of the revenue while the publishers receive only a small part spent by the advertiser.

Another allegation is that with Google being the major stakeholder in the digital advertising space, it unilaterally decides the amount to be paid to publishers and how it pays. The DNPA (also called the informant in the CCI order) described four relevant advertising markets – (i) the market for online search advertising services in India, (ii) the market for online general web services in India, (iii) the market for publishing news content in India, and (iv) the market for online advertisement in India. It submitted that globally as well as in India, Google has a substantial market share in all these relevant markets and therefore enjoys a dominant position in terms of Section 19(4) of the Act.

The DNPA also submitted that while allowing the website links of the publishers on its search engine, Google imposes direct/indirect unfair conditions on them. The publishers are not made aware of the revenue earned by Google from the advertisements on the publisher’s websites and this revenue is shared arbitrarily and unilaterally. Thus the submission is that Google is using its dominant position to impose arbitrary conditions on the publishers in violation of Section 4(2)(a)(i).

Under Section 4(2)(c), the DNPA alleges in its submission that Google’s unfair practices discourage innovation and the technical development of the services provided by the publishers, which is detrimental to the interest of the consumer as well as to the journalism industry.

Citing Section 4(2)(e), the DNPA argued that though Google has now entered the news aggregation genre, it does not produce its news. It said that since Google’s growth is because of its dominant position by the use of its algorithms which provide tailor-made news based on the search and viewing history of each consumer, the publishers have lost out on web traffic. Google’s forcing of publishers to implement its Accelerated Mobile Pages has reduced traffic, while the only alternative to AMP would be to subscribe to Google, which would be to the detriment of the news platforms.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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