Beware of Googles bearing gifts

These days, Google is getting more publicity than it probably wants. Last week, three women launched a class action lawsuit against the tech giant, alleging that it systemically paid men more. Now, Google and its Silicon Valley brethren are making headlines for opposing Congress’ efforts to halt online child sex trafficking. For a company whose motto is “don’t be evil,” these stories must be inducing their own share of agita at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters.

Truth be told, bad coverage for Google is more the exception than the rule. But it didn’t just happen that way. No, not at all.

Rather, the company has aggressively sought to divert the media’s peering gaze from its episodic woes, sprinkling strategically placed dollars into the coffers of its would-be critics, even as Google vacuums millions and millions in advertising revenue away from legacy news outlets. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small price for Google to pay -- especially when someone else is generating the content.

Although the story isn’t new, it has remained the same for more than a decade. Back then, in 2006, Belgian publishers sued Google for alleged copyright infringement in connection with Google’s search engine and Google News. The plaintiffs had claimed that Google illegally reproduced French-language content by linking to cached copies and displaying snippets of content. Said differently, the publishers did the heavy lifting. 

The company has aggressively sought to divert the media’s peering gaze from its episodic woes, sprinkling strategically placed dollars into the coffers of its would-be critics, even as Google vacuums millions and millions in advertising revenue away from legacy news outlets.

Rather than proceeding to a verdict, Google and plaintiffs settled in 2012, with Google partnering with the publishers in a series of collaborative efforts such as Google’s AdSense platform, integrating Google services into the publishers’ content, and assisting with distribution on mobile devices. To tech industry observers, it was a good deal for Google.

Significantly, the lawsuit and settlement were not one-offs. Rather, they appeared to be part of Google’s playbook as the story repeated itself in France. As was the case in Belgium, French publishers had demanded that Google pay them licensing fees for posting headlines and bits of content when Google would post search results.

What emerged from the clash became a prototype of sorts, with Google walking away from the clash with the title of Benefactor of French Media, all for the one-time price of 60 million euros ($82 million), which was directed into a special fund to assist the French media in developing their internet presence. There was one catch -- Google would still not be paying for its use and profit from other-peoples’ content.

Talk about being coopted. The die had been cast. Two years later Google launched a no-strings, three-year, 150-million-euro fund for publishers’ digital news projects, aka the Digital News Initiative (DNI) Innovation Fund, which has funded more than 90 projects, and distributed more than 73 million euros.

Any chance that this largesse dulled the desire on the part of some journalists to put Google under a microscope? Uh, are people human? Potential for conflicts-of-interest? See the point.

To be sure, Google’s propensity to smother with kindness knows no boundaries, and its influence isn’t limited to lobbying; making political contributions to Democrats and Republicans alike; Google’s Eric Schmidt coaching the Obama and Clinton campaigns, and to Schmidt wearing a Clinton Staff “badge” on Election night. No, it extends to partnering with those who report the news, and drive the story.

Since 2015, The New York Times and Google have organized joint giveaways of Google Cardboard, Google’s virtual reality headsets. Earlier this summer, The New York Times announced that it would use Google’s Perspective, an anti-trolling software, to combat and limit abusive comments posted to its website. 

To be sure, putting a dent in trash talk on the internet is a good thing. Still, it is also possible that the symbiotic relationship between Google and the media may cause a reporter or an editor to think twice about diving too deeply into a story.

Just look at the 2016 presidential race. The same way that Donald Trump took offense at being scrutinized by NBC during his presidential run, after having been the star and focal point of the Apprentice – in his words “I made a fortune for NBC with ‘The Apprentice’ … I had a top show where they were doing horribly” – it is only natural for Google to expect the media’s goodwill after it has done so much for them, including helping accelerate the decline of print journalism.

 

Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the George H.W. Bush campaign’s Middle East Policy Group in 1988 and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.