Saturday, March 26, 2005

Agence France Presse vs. Google News: Economics of Online Publishing and Search Engine Indexing

Juan Cole writes that the corporate media in the United States "refuse to report news that is only carried by AFP [Agence France Presse]" ("Major Battle North of Samarra Leaves Dozens Dead Or Does It?" Informed Comment 24 Mar. 2005). Therefore, the American public are deprived of an opportunity to compare conflicting reports like these:
Iraqi gendarmes of the Interior Ministry, supported by American troops, discovered a guerrilla training camp on the shores of Lake Tharthar in central Iraq. In the subsequent engagement, they claim to have killed 85 guerrillas. Al-Zaman says that 12 Iraqi policemen were killed in the encounter, in return. This area, the district of Hilwah, lies between Samarra, Tikrit and Ramadi, and the lake area -- populated by fishermen -- has been used by guerrillas as a base and to transport weapons. It is a marshy area difficult of access for outsiders.

Agence France Presse, on the other hand, managed to get some independent journalists up to the lake, north of Samarra, and they found 40 guerrillas still there. The guerrillas denied that 85 of their fellows had been killed by the Iraqi army, but admitted that 11 had been killed by US aerial bombardment. (American news organizations such as CNN refuse to report news that is only carried by AFP, because they consider it to have inadequate journalistic quality-control. But reports like this one are not being done by US wire services in Iraq, and if we don't take AFP seriously, we essentially may as well just believe whatever Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib and the Pentagon claim. (Cole, 24 Mar. 2005)
To compound the problem, AFP recently sued Google News "for US$ 17.5 million, for using photos, headlines and leads," so Google News removed AFP from it (Ernst Poulsen, "Google News Stops Using AFP," Poynter Online, 22 Mar. 2005). I very much doubt that AFP lost any profits due to Google News's indexing, as Google News users (now numbering 5.9 million) wouldn't have and wouldn't now pay for AFP products -- they only took a look at them because they were free. Besides, existing and potential AFP customers -- newspapers and magazines -- would pay for AFP products even if they were still available on the Net for free. At the very least, the news agency ought to have considered Google News indexing to be the company's public service that wouldn't affect its bottom line.

It must be said that Yahoo! Inc., unlike Google, pays for "some news sources, including AFP and The Associated Press, for rights" (Anick Jesdanun/Associated Press, "French news agency's lawsuit tests fair use in the Internet Age," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 26 Mar. 2005), so perhaps Google ought to do the same. But Google News, unlike Yahoo News, does not reproduce entire stories and full-size photographs. Google News merely delivers traffic to websites indexed by it. Given that fact, AFP's lawsuit may be a case that ends up reminding AFP of an old saying "don't cut off your nose to spite your face":
It seems ironic that while many sites are fighting to have their feeds included in the Google new engine so that they might increase their traffic, AFP, which makes money by convincing news site of the value of paying for its syndicated content, is fighting to have their content excluded. Now, if the point was simply to have the AFP site excluded from the listings, that would be one thing. However, AFP is going to court to keep their customer's Web sites from being listed in Google news. One wonders how their customers feel about this, after all, a victory could result in less traffic to customers' Web sites. (Jennifer Laycock, "Lawsuit Against Google May Prove Costly for AFP," Search Engine Guide 23 Mar. 005 )
Why should leftists (bloggers, listserv subscribers, Common Dreams News Center, Global Policy Forum, Information Clearing House, etc.) care about one business suing another, i.e. a dispute between capitalists? According to Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "a ruling against Google also could harm the free exchange of ideas on blogs, which often cite and link to news stories" (Jesdanun, 26 Mar. 2005).

The Internet has been one of the few commons that capitalists have so far failed to privatize totally: "Of the nation's 1,456 daily newspapers, only one national paper, The Wall Street Journal, which is published by Dow Jones & Company, and about 40 small dailies charge readers to use their Web sites. Other papers charge for either online access to portions of their content or offer online subscribers additional features" (Katharine Q. Seelye, "Publishers Face the Risky Economics of Charging Online," New York Times 14 Mar. 2005, Sec. C, p. 1). They would of course like to change that and charge all visitors for anything they look at, but publishers that begin to do so experience a sharp decline in traffic, decreasing online advertising, which, while "it accounts for only 2 percent or 3 percent" of their total revenues, is their "fastest-growing source of revenue" (Seelye, 14 Mar. 2005). Even the Wall Street Journal won't be able to charge for online content if it were not for the fact that many of its subscribers can treat it as "a business expense" (Seelye, 14 Mar. 2005). Online readers are "Never Willing to Spend" for news, or so says Rob Runett, director of electronic media communications at the Newspaper Association of America (qtd. in Seelye, 14 Mar. 2005). What's marketable in online publishing seems to be only sex, sports, and stock-market information. That's not likely to change in the short term, even if AFP wins the lawsuit, diminishing the cyber-commons as well as traffic to its customers' websites.

No comments: