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The incestuous relationship between Google and publishers could be about to get worse

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The digital media business in the United States is bleeding journalism jobs, and Big Tech may be partly to blame.

This conclusion is made in a piece published on The American Prospect, that says some 2,400 journalists and other staff had been fired in early 2019 alone – while the likes of Google and Facebook take more than 60 percent of online ad market revenue, in this way depleting media’s own revenue streams.

Apple is another top tech player that is joining the media market with its Apple News+ magazine and newspaper service – taking half the subscription money, and thus financially undermining publishers.

The report says the trend of downsizing staff has been evident with publishers such as HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Vice, and a host of local media across the country.

But the argument that tech and advertising giants are the executioners of publishers, and by extension, of “free speech” comes down to who controls and sells the massive and highly lucrative private data collected in browsers.

One aspect where publishers’ interests clash with those of Google may emerge in the shape of the latter’s need to do something about the mounting criticism of its damaging anti-privacy practices. Namely, the American Prospect argues in favor of continuing to allow third-party tracking cookies in browsers – in order to give publishers information on users’ interests and habits, which they, too, could share with advertisers to make money.

But looking after its own business interest, and image, Google has announced it would soon “restrict” these cookies in Chrome – the world’s most widely used browser, with over 60 percent share of both desktop and mobile markets. Apple has already positioned itself as strongly anti ad-tracking, and blocks third-party cookies in its Safari browser.

However, Google’s move won’t result in better privacy. But instead in more ad money being pushed the tech giant’s way, as media outlets would have to turn to it for ad sales, and become locked into that monetizing system.

In other words, the Chrome move could simply prove to be Google’s way of stifling competition, rather than looking after the browser users’ privacy.

But it seems to be a game played between two industries in which ordinary users and website visitors are those destined to lose. Namely, the main purpose of injecting third-party cookies into a website is to identify, profile and track visitors – so it’s hard to imagine that removing or restricting this practice would not benefit them. On the other hand, media content may move to a paywall model, or to subscription services – once again controlled by Big Tech.

If publishers continue to have direct access to user data, the American Prospect argues, that ad revenue “would go to hiring journalists” and protect the future of digital media by allowing them to collect more money through advertising – and adds that media industry is today under threat by tech monopolies siphoning off its revenue streams. Google’s pledge of $600 million to assist the industry doesn’t make up for the billions they earn from ads, said the article.

The author also argues in favor of more government regulation and breaking up Big Tech companies, to make their influence and sway less broad and effective, and to protect media companies who are finding it difficult to adjust to the digital age.

Over on AdExchanger, a website dedicated to the data-driven ad industry, the argument is that while big platforms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon would benefit from a cookie-restricting move, publishers would move to make money off the data they have at their disposal, such as emails and demographics. Alternatively, they could try moving content behind paywalls, or try to make use of Google’s Funding Choices and Apple News+.

As for marketers, starved of cookies, i.e., of the direct-response user targeting method, they might start looking into building profiles and tracking users by using their metadata.

In the end, digital publishers may simply have to accept that relying on third-party cookies is an unsustainable business model in this increasingly privacy-aware era – where this awareness can both be rewarded with real changes, or exploited for PR purposes. Nevertheless, it is here and here to stay – and in order for digital media to do the same, they will have to evolve.

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