The following is adapted from Rep. Ken Buck’s new book Crushed: Big Tech’s War on Free Speech.
The first brilliant idea Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had was to “crawl” — and trawl — the World Wide Web. Using spiders, it would copy what it found, create vast databases of web content, and then “index” that content, evaluating it for relevancy against search queries. The logic rules driving those relevance evaluations are known as the Google algorithm.
In 2018, Google earned an estimated $4.7 billion by including links to newspaper articles in its search results, according to a study by the News/Media Alliance. Google doesn’t produce any original news content; earnings are primarily generated by selling targeted ads tied to its search results. This means the content of news articles — searchable words and images — is directly connected to driving ad sales.
According to the study, news articles represented 40 percent of the links on search results. Despite that, Google did not pay a single cent to newspaper publishers for displaying their content and providing links to their stories. In the last decade, Google profits have skyrocketed. Alphabet, the company that now owns Google, reported revenues of $75 billion in Q4 of 2021, of which $62 billion was generated by Google advertising.
By optimizing and selling its ad vision, Google and its Big Tech brothers have stripped local newspapers and magazines of the advertising dollars these community institutions rely on to survive. The drop in ad revenue has proved lethal. More than 60 American dailies and 1,700 weeklies have closed since 2004.
The papers that have survived have seen their news-gathering budgets slashed. This effectively silences speech within communities and shrinks the marketplace of ideas at a grassroots level.
The collapse of local newspapers doesn’t end with the loss of jobs and the elimination of important big news stories. The small stories that unite communities disappear, too. The coverage of church events, town hall meetings, local fairs, and local team sports evaporates. These types of stories help communities define and cement themselves. They are a bonding agent.
Ensuring our free press has the financial strength to operate and fulfill its role as an unimpeded publisher of information is critical to keeping the marketplace of ideas open. To counteract the erosion of the press’s financial stability, initiated in part by Google and Facebook, we need to allow the free press to defend itself.
As crazy as it sounds, newspapers and other news providers are prohibited by the antitrust laws from banning together and negotiating a deal with the monopoly tech platforms. That, apparently, would be unfair — to the monopolies!
You can’t make this stuff up.
One legislative solution that I’ve championed would lift antitrust restrictions against small media companies banding together to negotiate. This will let publishers negotiate and collect from the digital platforms that have greatly profited from news organizations’ work. The proposal provides a four-year safe harbor window to hammer out terms to recoup advertising and subscriptions from digital giants who used news articles to gather data.
Google and Facebook don’t have any incentive to negotiate with deserving members of the media because as it currently stands, the monopolies get their content for free and receive all the revenue. The only leverage that small newspapers can have is to band together and deny Google and Facebook a large quantity of original content. But I hope a legislative solution can be crafted that allows a more even negotiating position.
Ken Buck represents Colorado’s 4th Congressional District.
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