Google and Rupert Murdoch: a Love Story

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Monday, word leaked that Microsoft approached Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (and others) about “de-indexing” their news content from Google.  The move would give Microsoft’s new search engine Bing exclusive rights to news content from the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.  The news media and blogosphere was abuzz with wonder and recrimination.

In public, at least, Murdoch has had a complicated love affair with Google.  In 2007 Murdoch said judiciously “We have a good relationship with Google and we have competitors everywhere… We watch them all with respect.”  In 2008 Murdoch seemed to up the ante of goodwill, expressing what sounded like gratitude for the Google model: “We’re very happy to be in the Google camp. They sell our search advertising and pay us well for it.”

As the fiscal strength of the economy and the news industry weakened in 2009, however, Murdoch started to change his tune. In July, Murdoch promised that he planned to be more outspoken against news aggregators like Google, suggesting that news aggregation may constitute copyright violation.  Murdoch made good on his word two weeks ago when he stated that he was considering delisting his content from Google.  Yesterday’s Financial Times article on the possibility of a partnership between News Corp and Microsoft was a signal that, if the right model could be found, Murdoch will be ready to move his content out of the reach of Google’s mighty spiders–a move that would establish a new precedent for what has historically been search engine neutrality.

While Google has yet to respond to the rumors about Microsoft and Bing, in response to Murdoch’s allegations of copyright theft, a spokesperson for the company told the Telegraph, “Publishers put their content on the web because they want it to be found, so very few choose not to include their material in Google News and web search. But if they tell us not to include it, we don’t.”  It’s hard to argue with Google’s logic.  Google claims that they send publishers like Murdoch 100,000 clicks every minute, positioning their aggregation model as an invaluable, free source of exposure and advertising to news providers.  Yet the question remains: is the current open search model profitable enough to replace the old business models of the news media? Or, is the Microsoft/News Corp partnership the future of an increasingly firewalled web?

The backdrop to the Murdoch V. Google kafuffle is the net neutrality debate taking place all around the globe.  Earlier this year, the EU empowered the telecom industry to go after information pirates and abandoned an effort to define Internet access as a fundamental right.  Stateside, an FCC proposal defining regulatory standards for the the telecom industry has created a firestorm of debate, with advocates of net neutrality arguing that the language of the proposed FCC rules are too ambiguous to protect the current open model of the net.

So, has Murdoch finally figured out a way to “save” the newspaper industry or does this headline more accurately summarize the move?  Given the stakes of the net neutrality debate, it is easy to dismiss the rumored Microsoft/News Corps marriage as unholy and evil (see here, here, and here); the fact remains, however, that Google profits mightily from the net neutrality model.  While this profitability provides benefits to the general public (see this blog for an example), clearly there are drawbacks to Google’s hegemony on the net.  The primary being, of course, that Google’s monopoly in defining how users use, interact with, and learn from the Internet is unmatched.

A modest proposal:  Rather than (potentially) inflicting a small wound on Google profits while weakening net neutrality in the search engine world, Microsoft–and the public–would be better served if Bing was developed into a product capable of competing with Google’s functionality as a powerful search tool, not simply a product with the power to compete for its sources of information.