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Google unveils €150 million fund for European media

AFP

Google announced a €150 million partnership with European media Tuesday that aims to “promote high-quality journalism through technology and innovation”, a move that comes after years of disputes with EU media and anti-trust regulators.

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Speaking at the FT Media Conference in London on Tuesday, Carlo D'Asaro Biondo, Google's president of strategic partnerships in Europe, described the creation of the Digital News Initiative as a programme to build “more sustainable models for news”.

“Everyone recognises the opportunities the Internet offers for the creation and dissemination of journalism,” Biondo said. “But the ‘new opportunities for growth’ remain elusive. When I talk to publishers in Europe I hear deep concern about their ongoing ability to fund great journalism.”

“The goal is to encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem – and promote innovation in digital journalism – through ongoing collaboration and dialogue between the tech and news sectors,” the company said on the initiative’s website.

The initiative’s three-year “innovation fund” will allocate €150 million for Google’s founding partnerships with eight media outlets – France’s Les Echos business daily, German newspapers Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Zeit, the UK’s Financial Times and The Guardian, NRC Media of The Netherlands, Spain’s El Pais and La Stampa in Italy – as well as with journalism organisations.

Products, training, innovation

Biondo emphasised that Google, which is responsible for more than 80 percent of European searches, did not want the Digital News Initiative to be an “exclusive” club.

“[Any] European publisher, big or small, traditional or newcomer, who wishes to take part in any of the elements of the initiative will be welcome,” he said.

The initiative will be three-fold, focused on product development, training and research, and boosting innovation. A new publishers’ working group will explore the creation of new digital products aimed at “increasing revenue, traffic and audience engagement”, Biondo said.

Training programmes in London, Paris and Hamburg will be developed in concert with journalism organisations (current partners include the European Journalism Centre, the Global Editors Network and the International News Media Association) while grant programmes will be established at academic institutions.

The €150 million investment will focus on “stimulating and supporting innovation in digital journalism” in Europe over the next three years. “There is a great desire to experiment more freely, but risk-taking comes at a cost,” Biondo said. “The purpose of this is to make grants available to projects which demonstrate new thinking in digital journalism.”

In 2013 Google created a €60 million Digital Publishing Innovation Fund in France that has already seen results, Biondo pointed out. As one of more than 50 French projects being funded, Le Monde created new mobile and tablet offerings that “significantly improved engagement with their app, increasing page views and time spent”. Slate.fr built a new type of newsreader, funded by native ads, that logs content that is trending on social networks.

Google in the crosshairs

Google’s latest largesse comes after years of fraught relations with EU media outlets and competition regulators.

On April 15 the European Commission (EC) formally accused Google of violating EU anti-trust laws by manipulating its algorithms to rank its own products (and those of its partners) higher in online search results.

“The commission is concerned that users do not necessarily see the most relevant results in response to queries – this is to the detriment of consumers, and stifles innovation,” the EC said in a statement.

That same day, the commission announced it was launching an investigation into whether Google abused its dominant market position to promote its Android mobile operating system and its related apps and services.

Most smartphone and tablet manufacturers use the Android system, the EC noted, and users must enter into agreements with Google to install its proprietary apps and services.

The investigation will focus on whether Google breached EU anti-trust rules “by hindering the development and market access of rival mobile operating systems” – in part by discouraging interoperability between the systems – which ultimately acts to the “detriment of consumers and developers of innovative services and products”, the commission said.

Google was given 10 weeks to respond to the charges, which it has denied.

The European Commission’s latest salvo follows years of accusations against Google, with a previous investigation launched in November 2010 after several companies complained that Google search results promoted the company's own services at the expense of competitors.

A settlement was reached in February last year after the search giant made concessions over how it would display search results: under the agreement, Google agreed to make clear when its own products were being promoted and display prominent links and logos to at least three competitors.

In a symbolic vote last November, EU lawmakers recommended that anti-trust regulators require Internet search engines to separate their search functions from their other services, such as video streaming or online shopping. The non-binding resolution stopped short of mentioning Google by name but the California-based firm was widely seen as the intended target of the proposal.

Charm offensive?

Google may be looking to offset some of the EU’s criticisms with its latest project as it eyes a gathering storm of future regulatory problems in Europe.

The EU's digital commissioner, Günther Oettinger, announced plans in October to reform the EU’s copyright laws within a year and introduce an EU-wide "Google tax" that would require search engines to pay a fee before displaying copyrighted material on their sites.

Such a fee system has existed since August 2013 in Germany, which requires news aggregators and search engines to pay royalties to publishers whenever they use or link to their content, excluding “individual words or small excerpts of text". 

Taking on Google has not always had the desired effect, however.

Axel Springer, Germany’s biggest news publisher, abandoned its attempt to block Google from displaying excerpts of its articles in 2014 after doing so caused its online traffic to nosedive.

A similar attempt by Spanish publishers also backfired, when Google announced that it would simply remove Spanish publishers from Google News and close its outpost in Spain before a strict new copyright law came into effect in January. The move prompted the Spanish Newspapers Publishers' Association to call on the government and EU competition authorities to stop Google from shutting down its Spanish operations.

It was a major reversal for the publishers’ association, which had pushed to get the new law introduced.

The Guardian’s international director, Tony Danker, welcomed the announcement of the Digital News Initiative – of which The Guardian is a founding partner – saying it could indicate Google’s new willingness to review its approach to “traffic, engagement and revenue for news”.

But he also said the move could simply be “old fashioned public relations tailored for the old continent”, underscoring that Brussels’ longstanding complaints about the way the Internet giant does business remain an open question.

“This initiative won’t solve those concerns or head off the commission’s action, nor should it,” he wrote in a Guardian editorial.

“There are clearly legitimate questions about dominance that Google will need to answer.”
 

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