Don’t be evil? All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. When you gain great power, you also gain grave responsibility. You can be evil by doing nothing, just as the people who watched Kitty Genovese be murdered in 1964 became evil by doing nothing. Just as the good Germans who watched Hitler’s rise and did nothing became evil by doing nothing, or the southerners who stood by while generations were lynched became evil by doing nothing. It’s a stain that does not wash out.
In this case, evil is at the heart of Google’s business model, and that of Internet advertising generally, which has become divorced from the content it sits beside.
This is something I’ve covered before, but briefly Google eliminated the advantage publishers previously got from aggregating audiences.
This has systematically destroyed journalism’s business model. I saw this coming 20 years ago, and urged publishers to get more deeply involved in their “partners’” sales process as a result, taking readers further down the sales funnel to earn commissions. But it’s now too late for that. You can’t build a competitive tech platform for that when Google and Amazon can make the sale directly.
Over the last decade journalism has become content, and all content is judged equally, by the number of clicks or hits it generates. News content has always been incredibly easy to steal, so sites cannibalize one another. Someone spends the money to get an exclusive, so a site with lots of readers writes a quick story describing the first piece and links to it. Guess who gets the traffic? Guess who gets the revenue?
After fighting rear guard actions newspapers became newsletters, demanding that readers “pay for content” they previously got for free. Subscription prices were previously used to pay the costs of getting the content to readers, which on the Web costs nothing. The result was a lack of traffic, a circling of the drain that now means most journalists are either freelancers or out of the business.
Thus there is no longer any arbiter between lies and truth. There is no longer anyone with credibility to say Atomic Boy is a hoax, or the Hillary e-mail “scandal” was a nonsense, or that Russia did interfere in our election. You can say that, but someone else is going to say the opposite, it’s a he-said, he-said situation, and no one is the wiser.
Google is under increasing pressure to “police” the Web. I have resisted this in my writing, because those making the demands are usually censors who just don’t want anyone seeing their own dirty laundry, just everyone else’s.
But someone must become the arbiter of truth. Democracy dies in darkness. The Washington Post’s paywall means it has minimal reach. Someone must make the truth visible.
Here is how Google can do it.
Next, transform Google News. Curate it. Stop linking to stories the journalists know are dicey. At the very least, downgrade them in search results. Don’t give opinion and actual stories equal weight. Keep the current format, but exercise editorial judgement.
Next, pay for what you link to. I know this flies in the face of Google’s business model. Links are supposed to be free. But these are special links. These are links driven by Google’s measure of site credibility. Put the outlet that gets the story first at the top of the stack of links. Ignore the Search Engine Optimization games by having real people police it. The news is a small enough universe that you can do that, if you spend some money on it.
Any publisher whose story the new Google News links to must agree to allow links through the paywall. This is not new technology. Paying for the link will get it respected. You negotiate a price that works for, say, The New York Times, then make that the standard price for everyone else, take it or get ignored.
Google may want to put some ads around the new News, but they must not be intrusive. The idea here is not to make money. It’s to assert credibility. It’s to define, for the reader, what true news is, and to pay for its production. Google might also want to get in touch with the Pulitzer committee, and pay bounties through it to truly excellent stories, cash awards that will be pennies to Google but will look like big dollars to those getting it.
Google has the financial strength to support what will be reported as an editorial power grab. Google may be one of the very few companies with the requisite financial strength. Since Google isn’t doing this for profit, it could get other large techs to support the effort. Apple could kick in some dollars, Microsoft and Facebook, too. Even Amazon, which might wind up getting many of those dollars back for links to Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post.
Asserting a value for truth, supporting real journalism, is going to be very, very controversial. The person at the top of the Google News stack must have enormous respect from all sides of the political spectrum. (I’m not suggesting they hire me.) That person will be getting on TV regularly, defending the site’s actions, so base them in New York. Katie Couric isn’t doing much these days.
With great power comes great responsibility. Google today has the power, but has not taken the responsibility. The result has been a flood of fake news, and Donald Trump as President. Google has stood idly by while the nation has been raped in broad daylight, handed over to its enemies. More to the point, power has been handed to Google’s enemies. Coddling this evil is not going to save Larry Page’s fortune.
The time has come to confront evil with good, and lies with truth. If Google isn’t to go down in history as the ultimate evil, this is what it must do.