Emma Woollacott

Do Google and Facebook threaten the free press?

Do Google and Facebook threaten the free press?
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What are newspapers for? The answer, of course, is not just to tell us what's going on and explain the implications, but also to select the most important items from the background noise. Over the last few years, though, we've started to get our news in a different way: through Google, where selections are made on the basis of a constantly evolving algorithm, and through social media sites where news stories are recommended by friends.

Throughout this change, Google has argued vociferously that it is not a publisher. Particularly in Europe, issues such as privacy, copyright and the right to be forgotten have led it to claim that it's simply a platform, and no more involved in the content it hosts than is a newsagent.

Now, though, the lines are becoming blurred, in part through the recent launch of Google's Digital News Initiative. Aimed at upping the game for online news writing, this project will see the internet giant placing staffers in London, Paris and Hamburg to provide digital skills training to journalists. Google is also setting up training partnerships with journalism organisations and providing a €150 million innovation fund. So far, Google has signed up the Guardian and the Financial Times, as well as France’s Les Echos, Germany’s FAZ and Die Zeit, Spain’s El País, Italy’s La Stampa and the Netherlands’s NRC Media.

Meanwhile, Facebook is also moving towards greater involvement in news publishing. Through its new Instant Articles feature, a handful of big-name news organisations - the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the Atlantic, National Geographic, NBC News, the Guardian, BBC News, Bild and Der Spiegel - will be able to publish directly to its site.

When users see a story that interests them, they will no longer need to click through and wait for it to load on its original site; instead, it will instantly appear in full in the same way as any other post. As a result, says Facebook, mobile users in particular should find reading the news a much quicker and smoother process.

However, with this announcement Facebook, too, is to an extent getting involved with the actual content. It is encouraging publishers to use new features such as audio captions and reader participation - and using a constantly tweaked algorithm to determine what news to show.

There are clear advantages for publishers in both deals, both in terms of visibility and ad revenue, and they've all provided canned statements expressing their enthusiasm for the new deals. But it's clear that they have some trepidation - and quite rightly.

Those participating in the Google initiative will inevitably now face questions about their impartiality when it comes to covering the tech industry. Meanwhile, those publishers unhappy with the way Google publishes 'snippets' of their stories may find less support for their point of view.

As for the Facebook deal, publishers may find themselves locked in to a partnership that could look less attractive as time goes by - if the company starts demanding a cut of advertising revenue, for example. While publishers can in theory pull out any time, this may be easier said than done.

Already, many Facebook users around the world use the site as their gateway to the web - indeed, Facebook accounts for more than a quarter of all time spent on the internet. And once users have got even more used to accessing their news this way, it will be hard for publishers to pull out later on and face trying to persuade readers back to their own sites.

As time goes by, more publishers will be sucked in: who's going to click on a slow-to-read story on Facebook via an external link when they can read Instant Articles instead? And if Google's mysterious algorithm prioritises the same 'best practice' that its editorial programme fosters, why risk dropping down the rankings by staying out? The system risks creating a new unspoken rule: that a publication’s success is in the hands of programmers at Facebook and Google.

In the long term, it looks likely that the platform companies and publishers will move closer and closer, possibly ending with the evolution of two or three conglomerates that both create and disseminate the news. And this could have major consequences.

First, there's the question of censorship. In the past, Facebook has censored images of everything from the Ferguson riots to breastfeeding women: will those same rules - or a watered-down set - apply?

More importantly, any greater convergence between platforms and publishers could have a devastating effect on publishing start-ups, for whom the internet has been such a boon over the last couple of decades. Many top publications - ironically, Buzzfeed is an example - started life as mould-breaking experimental ideas.

Over the last few years, the internet has fostered an explosion in independent publishing: now, alternative voices may be set to lose visibility. In future, your news may be a lot more homogenous.

Emma Woollacott is a freelance technology journalist