Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Earth to Mainstream Media: Please Stop Blaming Google for Your Own Problems

I have been blogging about the content and technology industries for more than ten years, and there seems to be one constant theme that crops up again and again: publishers see the Web as the enemy. It's too open, it devalues their content, they have to settle for "digital dimes" - or pennies - on their former dollars of income, it has made a travesty of copyright, etc., etc.  Frankly, I have gotten tired of hoping that publishers would ever come around and understand in a big way how to survive and thrive in a digital world. If I can write a 370-page book on how to adapt and mainstream media companies still try the same old tricks to "outwit" the Web, then I really don't hold out much hope for them.

The latest rinse-and-repeat tragedy can be seen in the European Union, where the Spanish Newspaper Publishers Association (AEDE) has pushed through a law in Spain forcing companies like Google (mostly Google in the E.U.) to pay a "link tax" for news items listed in search results, because piracy, because copyright, because whatever. Google's response: fine, we'll just shut down our Spanish search business. The AEDE's response: we'll get legislation passed forcing you to stay open. Say again? Apparently the publishers behind this heavy-handed legal tactic thought that blackmail would be sufficient to have Google submit to a false notion of piracy. As Google has done many, many times in the E.U. and elsewhere, they called the AEDE's bluff. The response this time, though, is rather shocking - it's an attempt to force the Web to subsidize publishers above and beyond the free link referral traffic that search engines already provide them. In essence, it's trying to nationalize Google's operations whilst allowing publishers to pull the strings on them via the Spanish government.

Getting a government to do the bidding of big media companies is nothing new, of course. Lately, though, it's taking on historic levels of brazenness as media companies try to map out a survival strategy for controlling the message of what's news and what's worthy entertainment in a Web-driven world that seems to make those choices fairly well on its own. Disclosures from the leaked cache of emails from Sony reveal that a consortium of companies have been working together to lobby U.S. states' attorney generals to prosecute what they see as Google's proliferation of copyright violations through its search engines. Having had their punitive Stop Online Piracy Act thwarted at the national level, the media industry is apparently following the example of many corporations and pushing through its will at the state level in what they feel is a more business-friendly government environment.

Everyone has a right to protect their business practices in a fair court of law, of course. but this constant trickery to turn the tables against the Web's ability to promote consumer choice (the real issue), whilst at the same time crowing about the rights of a free press, is downright sickening. It's bad enough that media companies want to lock up the public's access to knowledge and artistic material in life-plus-seventy copyright laws that give them the capital to keep them in the game without creating worthy new content in a more competitive marketplace. If you want a free market, then have it - live or die by the market, which means that you need to come up with a superior method of offering consumers choice than companies like Google offer. The answer so far from mainstream media giants: no thanks, we'd rather limit choice, because, well, easy profits and power.

Google may have its pluses and minuses, but it's the only major company out there which has focused consistently on offering consumers the best possible global choices for media and services, regardless of their branded sources. In the meantime, media companies continue to focus on limiting consumer choices. Which model represents free markets? We may have opinions about how that notion plays out, but the trickery of media companies to manipulate governments in order to tilt the playing field against consumer choice argues strongly against them from any number of standpoints. If I think of London's Fleet Street today, for example, the former bustling centre of news publishing in the U.K., you could shoot a cannon on that street today and hardly brush up against a single publisher. That diversity now thrives on the Web. There's no need to subsidize or over-protect large media companies - either they can make it in a free market or they can't. The smart ones know that, and act accordingly. I love helping companies that want to innovate their way to success, but please - no more crybabies and poor sports.

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