Three Questions for Google CEO Sundar Pichai on his Company’s Impact on the Journalism Industry

On Wednesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai will join the CEOs from three other tech titans in a historic hearing before the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. That Committee has been investigating Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon for possible antitrust violations for more than a year and this hearing is seen as the final step before releasing its findings.

The transition to digital media has ravaged the journalism business. It is not the fault of any one actor. But in surveying the landscape of the industry today, it is clear that one dominant player exploits its market power to stifle competition and harm news publishers: Google. Its control of the digital advertising marketplace and over web traffic gives Google an unfair advantage against its competitors. Here are three questions for Mr. Pichai about Google’s actions that negatively affect the journalism industry.

  1. Will you halt or suspend the phase out of third-party cookies in Chrome at least until an alternative is available that is not entirely dependent on Google?

Third-party cookies allow individual devices to be identified across the internet and enable a flow of information to advertisers that improves their ad campaigns and adds value to the advertising space on news websites. A 2019 study by Google itself found that eliminating third-party cookies would result in “an average revenue loss of 62%” for news websites. Despite this, Google announced in January that it will phase out support for third-party cookies by 2022 to improve privacy for Chrome users. But the fine print reveals that cookies placed by Google Analytics on other websites “would be treated as a first-party cookie,” preserving for themselves this capability they claim is bad for user privacy when done by others. Two former Department of Justice officials hit on what is likely the real rationale behind this change when they wrote recently that eliminating third-party cookies would “leav[e] Google with a virtual monopoly in digital advertising services.” The World Wide Web Consortium warned earlier this month that no alternative is likely to be ready by 2022. But Google is plowing ahead anyway, and it could be the nail in the coffin for the news business.

  1. Why was it necessary for Google to update Incognito Mode explicitly to prevent news publications from enforcing article subscription limits when Chrome users were in Incognito Mode?

Incognito Mode is an option in Chrome that allows for web browsing without site data and history being saved. It is also used to evade subscription limitations on the number of free articles that can be viewed on news websites. Metered paywalls are now believed to be the best way for news websites to maximize revenue from subscriptions and advertising. Many news websites had figured out how to detect that a reader was in Incognito Mode and could block access to articles. There was no impact on the private browsing experience as no site data or history was saved. But Google viewed that as a loophole, and in its July 2019 Chrome update, eliminated the ability for news publishers to detect when readers were using Incognito. Google said in its update announcement that it “will affect some publishers who have used the loophole to deter metered paywall circumvention.” 

  1. If faster loading times on mobile devices is the rationale behind AMP, why must news websites specifically use AMP to be ranked highly on search results rather than simply designing their pages for speed in any format?

Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, is supposedly about giving mobile device users the fast loading pages they want. AMP requires a stripped-down design that is hosted on Google’s servers. This creates multiple problems for news publishers. There is less ad space on AMP and the text loads faster than the ads, so AMP pages return lower value than other mobile pages. The page is viewed on a Google domain, not the news website, limiting internal referral opportunities and giving Google more access to user data than it would otherwise be able to obtain. And news publishers have no choice, as it’s impossible to rank highly on mobile searches without using AMP. Loading speed is clearly a factor, but it appears the real rationale behind AMP is dominance.

Google is exploiting its control of web traffic and the digital advertising marketplace to further entrench its dominance and take actions it acknowledges will reduce revenues for news publishers. Newspapers large and small are in a fight for their very survival. We need action now to save journalism.

The following is a statement from Laura Bassett, former Senior Politics Reporter for HuffPost who was laid off in January 2019, and co-founder of the Save Journalism Project:

“Google is a direct competitor to news outlets for advertising revenue. But Google’s dominance of web traffic and the online marketplace give it an unfair advantage. The UK Competitive Markets Authority found that the obscene profits that Google makes from the ad marketplace is ‘consistent with the exploitation of market power.’ Google has taken numerous actions to entrench its dominance that explicitly harm news publishers. It’s time Google answers these and other questions about why it is intentionally undermining the business model for the journalism industry.”