Michael Miller: Google's planned audio news service dangerous for news industry



Google's plans to create an audio news service similar to existing radio networks should alarm not just media companies but society as a whole.

The way the tech giant is pursuing its intentions demonstrates how it exploits its market power so selfishly - and highlights why regulators in the United States, Europe, and Australia are now focussed on creating a fairer, more equitable digital landscape.

Over the past two decades, Google has caused severe destruction and disruption to the journalism business model.

Even newish digital darlings like BuzzFeed - once thought to be a news model for modern times - are learning fast the pain Google (and Facebook) can cause through their dominance of how information is distributed and how dependent publishers are on the whims of the tech giants' algorithms.

Not a lot has been written about Google's plans to change the way we listen to news, but I believe it is time for media publishers to start taking notice and to take a stand.

Audio news is one of the new growth areas for media - smartphones and smart speakers are encouraging consumers to seek out information in different ways. And millions now listen to news and podcasts digitally in their homes, cars, or on public transport.

This development has opened up new audiences for publishers who are diversifying how they deliver their rich journalism to the public and demonstrates why radio has proven such a resilient media platform in these digital times.

On the back of this trend, Google intends to revolutionise how news is consumed on its smart speaker, Google Home, and AI-powered mobile app, Assistant.

Publishers are being asked to breakdown podcasts, audio news briefings, and radio broadcasts into 'single topic stories' that Google's algorithm can reorganise into a personalised newsfeed for individual users based on their interests.

That may sound innocuous at first. But in reality, it's a way for Google to drive consumers from publishers' websites and radio stations - and keep them in the Google ecosystem. In other words, Google intends to profit off the creativity and industry of journalists and media businesses without paying for the privilege.

What worries me about this development is that Google wants publishers and broadcasters to help them build this new business by giving away audio content for free without any commercial agreement to share in the benefits of it. Internet history is repeating itself. For years, Google has used its dominance to push publishers to provide news articles for free or risk demotion in search. Will publishers now be forced to give Google audio for free if they want to appear in search?

Google has tried to portray its audio proposals as a collaboration with publishers on the future of audio news. But it's no collaboration if the process is one-sided and unfair.

When Google first began decades ago, it was a means for the public to connect with online publishers for their content. This new audio push, however, is proposing the opposite. It disconnects the consumer from the content creator, does not deliver any referral traffic to publishers' Web sites, and provides no revenue at all to publishers.

What it is trying to do is destroy the value of news brands. It commoditises news - and seemingly the only real financial benefactor is the tech giant itself.

Google has resisted approaches from publishers to work out some form of fair commercial agreement in advance of launching its audio news service. It says it wants to achieve 'scale' first.

But this is something that should concern all businesses and consumers, not just media. Where a company such as Google has incredible power, its approach is to take, not give back or share. That is hardly a role model for how business relationships should work.

One of the key ways forward for correcting the imbalances caused by the digital platforms' market abuses is to create a playing field where they have to enter into meaningful commercial discussions with businesses.

These should be based around negotiating fair and equitable models at the start of conversations about business opportunities, not one-sided demands at the point of a monopoly's gun.

In commercial discussions and partnerships, it is important to have trust. Sadly in our case, Google's audio news negotiating terms shows how much that trust is broken.

Consumers have also had their trust betrayed by data and privacy breaches. They also now know that the "free" services of the tech giants come at a price - the proliferation of unreliable and unsavoury online content and the denigration of professional journalism, on which a healthy society depends.

In Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is conducting a world-first inquiry into the impact of the digital platforms on media and journalism. The ACCC believes this impact is "profound" and is at a "critical point": markets have been manipulated by the platforms to favour their own interests; there is a lack of transparency; and consumers' data and privacy breaches are of grave concern.

There is certainly no doubt wherever you live - the United States, Europe, Asia, or Australia - we are all at the same critical point: We've reached that moment in time when we need a new digital operating landscape - one that's equitable to all. Let's not let Google do with audio what it has already done to print.

• Michael Miller is executive chairman of News Corp Australasia, based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at michael.miller@news.com.au. This aryicle first appeared in INMA's Ideas Blog.