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Evil Is as Evil Does: Google and the Media

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The search giant Google is attracting criticism from those who see in that company's business practices a threat to professional journalism, old and new. The latest such comes in the form of a policy paper written by media attorney Kurt Wimmer, and published online by The Media Institute.

Honored this year by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Wimmer has advised journalists and legislators in more than two dozen countries concerning new media laws, protection of journalists, and freedom of information.

The thrust of his paper is that, at a time when there is great concern for the future of the media, much of this concern is misplaced. There's no crisis in journalism per se, he argues, but rather a crisis in the monetization of journalistic content, a condition greatly exacerbated by the fact that one company dominates both search and online advertising.

Is anyone monetizing digital content? Yes. News and information continues to be monetized -- at a rapidly increasing rate -- by search engines, content aggregators, and others whose new, targeted advertising models have overtaken the spending that had supported journalism in the past.

Again, the dramatic new feature here is the split between content creation and content monetization -- those who create the content are not those who are monetizing it. Google, for example, had a record $23 billion in revenue during 2009, without producing a word of original content. Google's job is simply to monetize the content that others have created, and it has performed that job exceptionally well. Today, more than 70 percent of the web searches conducted in the United States (and up to 90 percent of those in Europe) flow through Google's servers. By its recent acquisition of AdMob, Google will control the vast majority of the mobile application advertising market as well.

Complaints about Google's disruptive effect on professional journalism are not new, of course, and this is not the only active concern about Google's business practices. Other people have problems with the company's abuse of copyrighted material (as in Viacom's lawsuit against Google's YouTube subsidiary), or with Google's invasion of privacy, such as seen in the recent "Spy-Fi" affair.

What is new is the degree of scrutiny of Google's practices by government antitrust officials. As reported last month in a lengthy story in The New York Times, "the search giant's decisions on such matters may soon be judged by higher authorities." As the Times reporter, Brad Stone, put it "Almost a decade after Google promised that the creed 'Don't be evil' would guide its activities, the federal government is examining Google's acquisitions and actions as never before, looking for indications that the company's market power may be anticompetitive in the worlds of Web search and online advertising."

It's become hard to know, in recent years, what the government may deem to be in restraint of trade, but if it happens, sometime in the near future, that it initiates an antitrust review of Google and you find yourself wondering why, read Wimmer's piece and wonder no more.

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Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit organization supported by media and communications companies.