When Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation launched a broadside at Google, claiming the company abuses its overwhelming market position in Europe, it looked a lot like a clash between web and print – the Information Age vs the Gutenberg Age.
Chief executive Robert Thomson described Google as a "platform for piracy" and called for greater support from the European Competition Commission, which is into its fourth year of an anti-trust investigation into Google's near monopoly of the European search market.
At one level this is a case of corporate competition – Google's rise has corresponded with (if not propelled) News Corporation's decline, and the search engine's 90% market share is always going to warrant careful scrutiny. Many see that as the natural outcome of business models that have become outdated in the Information Age.
But on a deeper level this case highlights some of the really significant implications that access to information has for our social and political well-being. And, as is usually the case with these debates about new technology, there are many sides to the story.
Who pays for free content?
Thomson argues that Google's "egregious aggregation" of content cuts into the quality of dialogue in society because it undermines the "basic business model of professional content creators." And in large part, he's correct. Thomson is quite right to raise the relationship between budgets, journalism and public debate. Some forms of journalism are expensive – foreign correspondents and investigative journalism both require an investment of time and money to be effective. And the contribution of experienced, specialist journalists in areas such as defence, health and economics should not be under-estimated.
These people often have years of background knowledge that they bring to their analyses. Citizen journalism can be incredibly helpful in fast-breaking, incident-driven news. But it is not a replacement for professional journalism, which ideally provides an effective "fifth estate" oversight role of the public and private sector. But who is going to pay their salaries and expenses if organisations like News Corporation go bust?
While some publications such as the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and The Times (the latter two News Corporation titles) have erected paywalls forcing readers to take out a paid subscription to read content, this hasn't been a wildly successful transition from paper to online. Those who want to read news are no longer likely to pay for it – there is simply too much quality journalism available for free.
Where does the value lie?
All publishers are currently facing this crisis. In news, in music and in academia, the role of the publisher is being seriously questioned by both content producers and consumers. Many musicians, for example, are finding that eliminating the middle man and developing a more immediate relationship with their audience generates new opportunities to monetise their music.
Similarly, perhaps we need to reconsider that the real value of high-quality journalism is the journalists themselves, not their publishers. And that could arguably lead to a model in which we return funding and autonomy to public news services like the BBC – or pay journalists directly using platforms that have been developed for exactly that purpose – for example Patreon, Contributoria, Beacon or Indiegogo.
Google has been one of the most successful organisations at adapting to and developing a new business model. Google execs such as Eric Schmidt constantly remind us that Google's own best interest is in satisfying their customers – but who are their customers? In a blog post, Schmidt – Google's chief executive – recently pointed out that they built Google "for users, not for websites". But although Google is heavily-user focused – like News Corp it ultimately relies on advertising revenue.
For publishers, the fact that people can upload material in contravention of copyright law is frustrating and costly. But pursuing end-users on the internet through the courts is impractical and unpopular – as seen from the backlash against the extraordinary fines imposed in the past on people accused of downloading songs or videos (including children, grandmas, networked laser printers and even the dead). Consequently the angle of attack is aimed at the organisations that aid distribution, such as ISPs or companies like Google.
This reliance on "intermediary liability" is something to approach with extreme caution. By making service providers liable for the content, we ask them to become gatekeepers. That is certainly not a power that should be invested in an organisation like Google without very careful consideration. At the moment, intermediaries respond to claims of copyright infringement, defamation and obscene material on a case-by-case basis. By making them liable beyond that we would be institutionalising a kind of private-sector censorship that would take us back to the days of curated subscription internet services such as Compuserve and AOL.
Of course, newspaper editors themselves are extremely powerful gatekeepers. And one of the opportunities the Internet affords us is the means to avoid that kind of control over our news consumption. Developing a new business model for the delivery of high-quality journalism is definitely critical. But protecting an old model may not be. We need creative, fresh thinking to adapt to the provision of online news – not protectionism.
Explore further: News Corp opposes Google in EU antitrust case