Stuart Cosgrove: Here's why Google's new legal battle is relevant to all of us – The National

DENOMINALISATION, now there’s a big word to perk you up on a Sunday morning. It means when a noun becomes a verb.

In 1908, James Spangler, an asthmatic night-watchman in Ohio, was tired of breathing the dust in the shop he worked in. He invented a crude device for sucking up the dust and showed it to his sister Susan Hoover who ran a local shop with her husband. Together they patented the device and by the 1960s, the Hoover was in nearly every house in Scotland and a noun had become a verb as we casually spoke of hoovering the front room.

The word that has entered the vocabulary and transformed from noun to verb in the shortest timeframe is to Google – to use a search engine to find information on the web, whether it be a date of birth, the capital of a far off country or the name of the most hideous tax haven in the world.

A key feature of the speed of Google’s dominance is its near ubiquity and the way it has insinuated itself into our lives. Often we use it without much thought of the pervasive damage it has done to journalism.

Although it had been lost in the drama of the presidential elections, the US government is lodging a landmark anti-trust lawsuit against Google to set in motion a long legal war that could have broad implications for the entire technology industry. Google is on trial and the Justice Department has accused the search giant of illegally protecting its monopoly.

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When the Justice Department filed its allegations last Tuesday it claimed that Google engaged in “unlawful, anticompetitive tactics to grow its search and advertising empires into dominant digital forces”, enriching itself and amassing unrivalled market share that makes it impossible for smaller companies to compete and thrive.

According to the Washington Post: “The Justice Department views those practices as ‘pernicious’ and anticompetitive, stressing that Google has enriched itself, foreclosed competition and violated federal anti-trust laws in the process. Google, however, contends that consumers easily have the ability to switch to other rival search engines.”

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In the attempts to rein in Google’s power, attention is being paid to the iPhone and the money that Google has paid to ensure that Google search is the preferred factory setting for all Apple phones. Another area is the ease with which the tech giants buy up smaller companies and further consolidate the industry.

Many of you will use Google routinely and will be baffled by the underlying problem. It’s a great search engine that makes life easier and helps you with hundreds of weekly tasks and seems at least superficially to be free. But there is no such thing as a free lunch nor a free search.

Google’s code of corporate conduct contains the now famous phrase “Don’t Do Evil” – a laudable value which cannot disguise the immeasurable harm that Google has done by disrupting the media landscape. It has decimated many organisations in Scotland, putting jobs and livelihoods on the line. Every time you read about a journalist leaving a paper, or circulation plummeting at a title, there is every likelihood that the negative impact of Google is lurking in the background somewhere.

Even if you do not care about the fate of individual writers, the quality and resilience of what constitutes journalism is changing too. There is a decline in in-depth writing because the web and mobile media need content to be shorter. There is no longer a culture of costly investigations that in past years exposed the Thalidomide scandal or the miscarriages of justice that blighted the British military presence in Northern Ireland. Worst of all, in order to stay alive and to keep a grasping hold on the digital advertising market, more and more newspapers are scraping their stories from the web and repurposing web-memes as journalism. The word click-bait is now in such common usage it has reduced journalism to a crass from of digital fishing.

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Google and Facebook now have such leverage over the digital advertising market that their predicted share this year is 61.4% and a gargantuan $176.4 billion accrues to Google and Facebook annually, a 22% increase since 2018, and about the equivalent of the estimated GDP of Scotland.

MARKET dominance in the digital advertising market has not satiated the so-called “cookie-monsters”. Facebook has set up a new division called Facebook Showcase, a digital version of the old TV advertising events called “Upfronts”, which teased advertisers with forthcoming hit shows and allowed them to buy airtime for the months to come. Google now has its own in-house creative company, Google Zoo, which offers creative services to clients unsure of how to produce for the web.

Channel 4 is particularly vulnerable to this new reality. It has been hit hard in the second quarter of 2020 by the collapse in the television advertising market, which has fallen dramatically as brands have slashed marketing spend or diverted it online during the virus crisis. Channel 4 is currently planning a massive cost-cutting exercise as the spectre of privatisation looms yet again. And when that happens there is always the fear that the much-respected Channel 4 news will be brutally exposed and possibly unsustainable in a more ruthlessly commercial world.

The US system prefers market competition to monopoly and is now homing in on Google concerned that it has become too powerful and prevents entrepreneurs from launching rival services without putting their livelihoods at risk. But the law is a strange, expensive and lumbering beast. It is assumed that this latest legal challenge will last six years, virtually a lifetime in tech media.

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Google is no stranger to complex court cases and the wide range of cases it has been forced to defend in the past exposes the extent of its reach in online media. In March 2005, Agence France-Presse (AFP) sued Google for copyright infringement in circulating French news stories within the Google News service without due attribution or paying a licence for the journalism. In Spain, there has been a high-profile case brought by the National Data Protection Agency complaining about abuse of data and privacy online. In 2013, Max Mosley used the French courts to insist that Google remove images of him engaging in a sado-masochistic sex act with several prostitutes. The actress Cindy Lee Garcia sued Google and its video-sharing website, YouTube, for hosting the controversial anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims”. The actress claims to have been duped into appearing in the film which sparked violence in the Middle East. Chinese writer Mian Mian filed a lawsuit against the company, for scanning her entire novel without notifying her or paying her for copyright permission in Google Books. And, in an Australian case colloquially known as “Janice Duffy Psychic Stalker”, a woman defended herself from online defamation which Google had enabled through search recommendations to Ripoff Report, a profitable website that allows people to make anonymous complaints online.

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Two things are consistent in all these diverse lawsuits. One is that Google often loses legal cases and must amend its way, albeit through tweaks and corrections to pervasive algorithms. Secondly, it routinely defends itself and is unlikely to concede ground unless forced to.

The American Justice Department has thrown down the gauntlet on yet another case that will impact on all our lives, whether we know it yet or not. The only other thing we can be sure of is that the outcome will not be known for years to come – by which time the media as we know it will have changed out of all recognition and some of the publications and practices that were once household names in Scotland will have gone.



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