The Media Institute has told the Federal Trade Commission that the government needs to step in to remedy the "threat" to competitors in the digital space posed by Google's unrivaled dominance in the search and advertising marketplace.
That came in a White Paper submitted by the institute as the FTC vets Google's search and ad businesses.
The Institute is an independent First Amendment think tank supported by major media companies and more frequently associated with arguing against government entry into the media space.
It points out in the paper that all those media need to compete in a digital space where Google is its major competitor for advertising. "Google dominates the online advertising market...by skimming away the earnings of media companies as it scrapes up their content," says the paper, "denying them of the scale that would be required for effective competition with the gatekeeper to the Internet."
Despite being able to turn the search spigot on and off at will, says the paper, giving content creators little choice but to participate or face a low search ranking that could mean "invisibility," Google faces no government check on that power. "[U]nlike many of its competitors -- which Washington agencies like the FCC monitor and which comply with important rules regulating their behavior -- Google faces no similar regulation in building valuable media-related properties out of its competitors' content."
The paper takes issue with Google's prioritizing of search for Google News, redirecting readers from original sources to Google's aggregated home page. To do that, it says, Google's main page "biases Google News results over results of news organizations and other publishers."
While Google is arguing that it optimizes search and that sites can tweak or update content more often to make it more relevant.
But the paper suggests that is easier said than done. "[T]here is simply no way for a media outlet to know whether a poor ranking or misdirected traffic flow is the product of its own failings or Google's mischief. Google has the tools to alter its search rankings, whether it uses a hatchet to cut off a publication manually or a paring knife to shape its algorithm to its benefit. For this reason, rivals have no ability to compete and rise above Google News in a search result -- Google News will almost always win."
The institute says that needs to change, calling it a dilemma Google's competitors should not have to face.
"Despite its stated values to the contrary, Google has shown a willingness to exercise its monopoly power to the detriment of media companies, publishers, and journalists." To prevent foreclosure of competition, says the paper, the FTC should "take action to prevent this result," though the paper does not suggest a remedy.
Media Institute President Patrick Maines agreed calling for the FTC action was unusual.
"The institute from the beginning has had three guiding goals," he said, "a strong First Amendment, journalistic excellence and sound communications policy. We're not arguing that this is a First Amendment issue. But it seems to us that, as the paper demonstrates, we've reached a time where this one company is now posing a great threat to the whole of the media economy, so we thought we would speak about that."
At press time, Google had not returned an e-mail request for comment -- its preferred mode of communications -- but in June when it revealed on its blog that the FTC was investigating, it defended its service. "We make hundreds of changes to our algorithms every year to improve your search experience," it said. "Not every website can come out at the top of the page, or even appear on the first page of our search results. Today, when you type 'weather in Chicago' or 'how many feet in a mile' into our search box, you get the answers directly -- often before you hit 'enter.' And we're always trying to figure out new ways to answer even more complicated questions just as clearly and quickly. Advertisements offer useful information, too, which is why we also work hard to ensure that our ads are relevant to you." It added that it is always clear "what is an ad and what isn't."