Following Facebook's foray into fact-checking with third-party partners and Twitter's tweaking and censoring of random accounts without any transparency, Google has embarked on a pursuit of patronage for journalistic startups in India, under the Google News Initiative.
By Google's own definition, the Google News Initiative is the company's effort to collaborate with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age.
While one may assume that Google's algorithms and their undisclosed working and unconfirmed transparency would be a boost to any digital media house, Google wants to go a step further and help the news outlets evolve their business models to ensure sustainable growth by virtue of traffic and finances.
In India, Google News Initiative (GNI), as 'GNI Startup Labs India' has partnered with global innovation lab Echos, and the DIGIPUB News India Foundation.
The program aims to support reporting for local communities, single-topic audiences, and previously underserved communities across India.
The program will inculcate early stage online news organisations in a 16-week journey to acquaint them with design thinking, courtesy of Echos, and to an extensive and elaborate active network of content creators, courtesy of the DIGIPUB News India Foundation through workshops, coaching, and other professional networking opportunities.
On paper, this does come across as a noble initiative, but Google's decision to partner with the news foundation to embark on the goal of assisting content creators does raise questions about the whole program. Why must Google, as the world's biggest search engine with over 90 per cent of the queries, be interested in a program like this?
However, if at all, Google wants to embark on an editorial pursuit as this, why not do it independently, and leave it to content creators to join them? Surely, Googling a program by Google should not be too hard for any content creator? There are enough programs pertaining to other Google services creators sign up for, and they are independently run.
With data from news websites, thousands of them, from across the globe, why does Google require the experience or expertise of a news foundation to assist early stage creators?
However, if at all, Google does wish to involve a news foundation, DIGIPUB News India in this case, the editorial and ideological inclinations of its founding members, which they have made no attempt to hide or be subtle about, further cements the doubts around the entire program and its utility?
The founding members of DIGIPUB News India, and other content creators and media outlets which are a part of this foundation have all the freedom to propagate any political ideology, have the right to sell any editorial stance as news, have the constitutional go-ahead to advocate any party leanings, and none can raise any questions against it.
However, for Google, as a tech company, and with a search engine ideally expected to be uninterested and unbiased to all the webpages on the internet within its purview, a partnership like this, in the news domain, is problematic.
When viewed from the lens of the foundation Google has partnered with, the program comes across as a disguised subtle attempt to give space to propaganda that exploits the communal faultlines, backs creators that are only interested in elections and the editorial coverage around them and connects them to the advocates of certain ideology or inclinations, thereby ushering an atmosphere where a group of creators, new and old, may attain preference within the search engine over other creators.
Does this mean that Google could usher a favourable bias against the creator community by ranking them ahead in algorithms, or giving them more organic viewership, or push other creators independent of the foundation in question lower in content rankings?
There is no definite way to confirm or deny this, for the search engine registers around four million queries each minute, but the speculation and smoke are not without fire, for Google has been questioned earlier, in other parts of the world, for their inherent bias in the news realm.
An independent study undertaken to understand the impact of the algorithm changes made by the company to its search engine, from 2015 to Q2 of 2020, estimated a fall in traffic for all news websites in the United States. However, the decline in traffic was more for the conservative websites than the liberal ones.
In August 2018, President Donald Trump had accused Google of suppressing positive news against him, stating that more than 90 per cent of the news about him was sourced from left-wing websites. In April 2018, Congress had held a hearing on the same issue, citing many conservatives who had accused the search engine of being favourably biased towards left-wing websites.
During Trump's tenure, Google, along with Facebook and Twitter, were routinely questioned by the Republican Senators for their biases. This only culminated in the Big Tech lobbying strongly in Washington against a breakup ahead of the elections and with the new administration under President Joe Biden.
Around January 2018, David Gudeman, a former employee of the company, filed a lawsuit stating that he was dismissed for his conservative views and said that Google routinely discriminates against conservatives. Citing internal emails and posts, Gudeman further added that harassment of people with conservative ideological leanings was encouraged in the company.
The lawsuit included a screenshot of a message that was circulated on the company's internal bulletin board, stating, 'If you express a dunderhead opinion about religion, about politics, or about social justice, it turns out I am allowed to think you're a halfwit and refuse to work with such a person on a project'. However, two years later, the lawsuit was dropped.
Google's search algorithms receive updates frequently, and these updates have a positive or negative impact on the traffic. While the working of algorithms is anyone's guess, for a company running the world's biggest gatekeeper program for the internet, the wisdom lies in being the gatekeeper and not a direct participant or competitor in an industry as critical as the news business.
In 2018, Google was fined around $21 million by the Competition Commission of India for abusing its dominance and redirecting users to its own page when they searched for flight tickets. This was in accordance with a complaint filed in 2012. In 2017, it was fined $2.7 billion by the European Commission for promoting its own shopping comparison service ahead of other businesses.
However, while fines are one way to restrain Google's enthusiasm and possible biases, they do not solve the larger problem of plausible opaqueness within the working of the algorithms when it comes to ranking news websites. Also, given the importance of news websites against a flight or shopping website, Google's partnership with questionable portals does raise more questions about its integrity.
Google, after a hefty $300 million commitment to help news creators sail through a pandemic, announced plans for a billion-dollar long-term investment in partnerships with news outlets and for what Sundar Pichai in his blog post called the future of news.
The partnership is for the Google News Showcase, a contemporary of Apple News, and a product that will put Google in direct competition with the publishers. Now, with the existing monopoly the company enjoys with its advertising revenue, why is Google also interested in the news business in India and that too in alignment with a certain political ideology, one it has been repeatedly accused of being favourably biased to.
What's cooking here, really?
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