What happens when Google censors Calif. news to protect its bottom line?

by Tom Philp

Search engines like Google have always selectively censored content by limiting what its users can find. Usually, the censored material has been either sexually explicit, intellectual property guarded by copyright, disinformation or sensitive personal information.

Last week, Google stopped being a neutral aggregator of the internet and began censoring out of its economic self-interest by denying its users access to content created and reported by California news outlets. Sacramento is no stranger to political hardball, but what Google is doing is different and dangerous.

Google leaders have launched a “small test” that involves eliminating links to California news websites from search results for some of the search engine’s users. The decision to limit access to news comes in response to California legislation that would compel content aggregators like Google to share the profits from news-related content with the journalism outlets that produced the content in the first place.

Assembly Bill 886 by Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, seeks to do just that.

Google’s suppression of journalism raises the issue of whether a tech giant should be allowed to block access to news content for purely economic reasons. How is the consumer protected? How should government regulate a search engine when it becomes a suppression engine?

Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna, an ascending voice in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, said the federal government is behind the times and can’t effectively regulate new economic powers of the information age with 19th-century tools.

“They need more tools,” Khanna said in a recent interview with The Bee Editorial Board.

He has sought, unsuccessfully, to expand the technology staff of the Federal Trade Commission. But the best the FTC can do is uphold today’s antitrust laws, which were first created to combat industrial monopolies more than a century ago. “We also need to shift in the paradigm of U.S. law,” Khanna said.

Behind Google is elaborate computer coding, known as an algorithm, that produces the results of a user search on the computer screen. In this emerging California controversy, Google is testing how to manipulate the algorithm to exclude California news websites from a user’s search results..

The algorithm is to Google what the assembly line is to Ford Motors. It is the backbone of the enterprise. The algorithm, however, may prove far more difficult to regulate.

Some Democrats in Congress are trying. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for example, has proposed legislation to ban rideshare companies and other internet sales outlets from using algorithms to collude and set higher prices. Collusion is a concept that dates back to the Ford of the Model T era and the industrial monopolies, and it is something that Congress understands.

It’s not that Klobuchar’s move is insignificant. But as a legislative response to the power and dominance of companies like Google — and to Khanna’s point — Congress is just beginning to launch some modest maiden efforts to better manage this digital age.

While Khanna supports Klobuchar’s bill, what Google is doing in California isn’t good old-fashioned collusion. It is a different exercise of dominant market power. When Google leaves links from California news websites out of search results, there are no advertising-related revenues to possibly share with the journalism outlets that produced the content.

For now, supporters of AB 886, including the California News Publishers Association, are focused on seeking justice in the halls of the California Capitol more than in Washington, D.C., because the state legislation is both on point and only a few votes from getting to the governor.

In a letter to California Attorney General Rob Bonta, CNPA and the News/Media Alliance called for an investigation of Google’s actions for several potential violations of state law.

Google holds approximately 90% of the online search market, and its censorship of California news is a potential violation of the state’s Unfair Competition Law. Google has previously stated that it “cannot and does not screen the sites before including them in the indices from which such automated search results are gathered.” But now it is screening out some California journalism. Is that unfair competition?  

The U.S. Justice Department is hot after Google, but it’s a more traditional monopoly issue of market dominance as opposed to economically motivated censorship. The department is alleging that Google controls some key advertising technology used throughout the digital world. That’s a different way to subvert competition beyond denying content creators such as journalism outlets a portion of the related advertising revenues.

Where all this leads is anyone’s guess. Google’s decision to make some California news disappear in searches is a sign that AB 886 has gotten its attention. By trying to intimidate lawmakers by shutting their constituents out of news and information, Google is proving why it needs to be regulated. Google is dangerously powerful, and that should be a concern beyond California newsrooms.

Tom Philp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist who returned to The Sacramento Bee in 2023 after working in government for 16 years.