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July 13, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:09am

Google says paying publishers to appear in search could undermine trust

By Bron Maher

Google’s UK public policy manager has said paying news publishers for their content to appear in search results could undermine otherwise high trust in their service.

Tom Morrison-Bell (pictured, second from left) also criticised the forthcoming Online Safety Bill, arguing its exemption for news publishers may undermine its own goals by preventing platforms from quickly removing harmful content.

Speaking on the same panel, Impress’ head of regulation also questioned the bill, saying it privileged freedom of expression above other rights.

And MP Damian Collins, the newly-appointed technology and digital minister, reaffirmed that specialist publications would not get the protections offered to general news publishers.

Speaking at a panel on citizen-focused media policy at the IPPR Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday, Morrison-Bell drew a distinction between traditional established media, which has seen a substantial decline in trust, and “search engines [which] are consistently seen as the most trusted form of media.

“In the Edelman [Trust] Barometer, for I don’t know how many years, search engines always come at the top. Research that we’ve done internally shows that people go to Google in order to check whether something they’ve seen online or in the papers or wherever is true.”

Last year Edelman gave search engines a trust score of 59% (down 3% on the year before) compared to 57% for traditional media (down 5%).

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Seeking to draw a line between Google and social networks that allow users to share falsehoods, Morrison-Bell said: “Search is not the same as social media. It’s not a social media platform, and it shouldn’t be bundled in in the same way as social media, it performs a different function and it’s trusted better.”

Governments in the UK, Canada and US are currently investigating how big tech, in particular the so-called advertising Duopoly of Facebook and Google, can be induced to pay publishers for the news content from which they benefit.

Such legislation has already been enacted – although not yet activated – in Australia.

[Read more: Support for Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code grows as 24 publishing minnows secure Google deals]

Referring to these plans, Morrison-Bell said: “You mustn’t undermine that trust that people have in search engines yielding good and authoritative results…

“One of the things that we’ve found undermines that trust – or rather, [World Wide Web creator] Tim Berners-Lee stated – is things that look like payment for links in a search engine, which go against – as Sir Tim put it – in Australia, free linking is one of the fundamental principles of the web. Right? Nobody pays just to have a link on their web page…

“The more you muddy that balance, the more users are not sure, like – did you pay to get to the top of the search engine results, or did you not? That begins to chip away at the trust that people have in search.”

Berners-Lee has previously criticised Australia’s news media bargaining code, arguing it violates the internet’s “free-linking” principle. It is unclear whether he has specifically claimed it would also erode public trust in search results: Press Gazette has approached his W3 foundation for confirmation.

Morrison-Bell also criticised the current version of the Online Safety Bill, legislation targeted at getting tech platforms to remove harmful content more effectively.

Later on Wednesday, after the event took place, the Online Safety Bill’s third reading was dropped from Government business next week to make way for a confidence vote in the Government and the next stage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to take place ahead of recess. Sources told PA the bill was expected to be tabled in the autumn once the new prime minister has taken office, but others questioned whether it could be dropped altogether.

As it stands, the bill contains an exemption for news publishers, meaning platforms cannot remove certain publishers’ work until an appeals process has been completed. The inclusion of the exemption was spurred by the occasional removal of legitimate journalistic material, such as Google-owned Youtube taking down Talkradio’s channel for less than a day last year.

Morrison Bell said: “When we take [content] down, we don’t take that down randomly or arbitrarily, and there is an existing appeals process for that to be reinstated.

“I think what the law will intend now is that if we deem something to be harmful and in violation of our community guidelines – which, there’s a pretty good chance that that’s an accurate reflection – that material is going to have to stay up for longer.

“So users are going to have to be exposed to potentially harmful content for longer than if we were able to take it down and then the appeals process brings it back up. Which would seem to be at odds with the aim in the bill of keeping this material to a minimum.”

Last week the Professional Publishers’ Association complained that the bill’s protections do not extend to specialist or trade publications such as Inside Housing (and Press Gazette).

Damian Collins, the Conservative minister now in charge of landing the bill who previously chaired the joint committee on its creation, confirmed at a talk prior to the panel that the Government was not seeking to expand the bill’s definition of a news publisher.

“In terms of the definition getting wider, I think from our viewpoint that’s been set,” he said in response to a Press Gazette question.

“It is news providers, rather than specialist journals or magazines, that are within scope. We considered this during the joint committee on the bill actually, this matter has been discussed quite a lot.

“I think there needs to be a reasonably tight definition of what a news provider is in this case otherwise I think it could be extremely broad”.

Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana (pictured, right), head of regulation at Leveson-aligned press regulator Impress, questioned the thinking that led to the exemption for news publishers.

“Sometimes when we talk about free expression, we think about it as this right that flows one way,” Kirkconnell-Kawana said. “That free expression is this ultimate right that doesn’t butt up against proportional and reasonable restrictions, like all the other rights in the Human Rights Act do.

“And in fact, freedom of expression often butts up against other rights like the right to be free from discrimination, the right to privacy, the right to a fair trial…

“If we’re really concerned about people’s rights, we should look at the fact that, over the last decade, hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, have been exchanged in settlements from people whose rights have been abused by agents of the media and of the free press acting under the right of the freedom of expression.”

Picture: Press Gazette

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