Google Vs Digital News Publishers: Competition Regulator Directs Investigation

Google should've known this was coming—Digital news publishers raise anti-competitive concerns against the search giant.

Google Vs Digital News Publishers: Competition Regulator Directs Investigation

Search engine giant Google would’ve known this was coming. It has unsuccessfully tried to fight news publishers in France and Australia and is resisting efforts by the European Union to enforce a law that will require big tech firms to pay publishers for content. Last year, Google had agreed to pay local publishers for news content in France and Australia.

Google’s global story is now playing out in India as well. The competition regulator has found merit in directing an investigation into Google’s abusive conduct vis-à-vis news publishers. In its order on Friday, the Competition Commission of India has noted that Google is a dominant player in the market for online general web search services and the market for online search advertising services in India. The order added that it is prima facie abusing this position to impose unfair conditions on digital news publishers.

This is the third anti-trust investigation against Google in India, the first two being CCI's inquiry into the platform's online advertising business and Play Store app on android smartphones.

The Complaint

The regulator’s order is a result of a complaint filed by the Digital News Publishers Association, which alleged that:

  • Google, by way of its algorithms, determines which news website gets discovered via search. It unilaterally decides the terms and the amount to be paid to publishers for content created by them. For instance, Google has unilaterally decided not to pay news publishers for the snippets used by them in search. ‘Snippet’ refers to the small amount of text, an image or a short video that forms part of a link.

  • Website publishers only receive 51% of the advertisement spend by the advertisers. Publishers are not informed of or given any data on revenue Google generates by providing advertisements on the websites of content publishers. Digital news platforms aren’t paid fair value for their content even after investing heavily to make and publish well-researched, quality content.

  • The tech giant has launched Google News, Google News Showcase, etc. but doesn’t produce any news of its own. Steadily, Google has grown its influence in the news space by effectively using its dominance, allowing it to dictate what a viewer sees first. It then uses advanced algorithmic tools to cater tailor-made news as per the viewing history of each viewer.

  • There has been a surge in zero-click searches from 50% in June 2019 to 65% between January and December 2020. Zero-click searches means user queries being resolved on the results page itself, without going on to the target website. As such, by displaying its own advertisements, Google is extracts value from zero-click searches, while publishers lose out on traffic.

The CCI View

The regulator has found merit in news publisher’s complaints. It noted that Google displays news content on its search page and also via a news aggregator vertical, i.e. Google News. In May last year, Google also announced a licensing program in India titled Google News Showcase to incentivise news publishers to curate high-quality content on Google’s News and Discover platforms.

Pointing to Google’s dominance in online general search as well as search advertising, the regulator pointed out that it is a preferred service provider for publishers. They are dependent on Google for the majority of the traffic, which makes it an indispensable trading partner. News publishers have no choice but to accept the terms and conditions imposed by Google, it said.

Google appears to operate as a gateway between various news publishers on the one hand and news readers on the other. Another alternative for the news publisher is to forgo the traffic generated by Google for them, which would be unfavourable to their revenue generation.

The regulator has found anti-competitive concerns in Google’s ‘snippet’ feature as well. A snippet may be the first line or two of a news article and it can also be extracted from the body of a news article if the search engine finds that information to be more relevant to answering the user’s query.

The issue of scraping and displaying news snippets and leads by Google on its search platform without compensating the content creators also assumes particular significance in view of the increasing zero-click searches, the regulator said in its order.

It needs to be examined whether the use of snippets by Google is a result of bargaining power imbalance and whether it affects the referral traffic to news publisher websites, and thus, their monetisation abilities.

Finally, the regulator also noted the Google has been directed to enter into fair negotiations with news publishers in France and Australia for paid licensing of content to address the bargaining power imbalance.

The regulator has directed its investigation wing to examine Google's conduct within 60 days.

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