Publishers Have A Window Of Opportunity To Change Google And Facebook

January 26, 2021

Stay up to date

Back to main Blog
Michael Shaughnessy


As Featured On AdExchanger

As we come out of the fog of 2020, we must remember the five incredibly important investigations happening right now that affect the way content is discovered, consumed and paid for.

First, a striking US lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission alleges that Facebook is a monopoly and demands its break up. Second, ten states are suing Google for anti-competitive behavior, including its “monopolistic” dominance in advertising marketplaces.

The industry has long called for such regulatory efforts, but let’s not sit back and hope they turn out in favor of the independent publishers. We need to keep our voices loud to remind lawmakers of the importance of justice for our industry.

The other side of the world shows what can happen when publishers lose their voice during these processes. In Australia, Google and Facebook are getting a valuable concession in the form of legislation focused on how the two giants pay publishers for content.

In the new statute, Google and Facebook can provide value to news publishers through traffic procurement. But there’s a catch. There's no absolute value for a publisher's traffic in the law, so Google and Facebook could argue that the traffic they deliver has the same value as what a publisher's content is worth, meaning Google and Facebook might not have to pay publishers anything for their content.

This justification is exploitative because publishers lack bargaining power against the conglomeration of Google’s and Facebook’s clench on traffic.

This example epitomizes the two-faced behavior when these two companies waver between acting like a friendly “traffic driver” in one instance, but then also acting like a publisher in the next, by showcasing content on their own sites. Actually, they’re both. In being both a player and a referee, these companies present a monopolistic advantage over every other website. Publishers can be an asset to the FTC by highlighting the severity and harm of that double-sided personality.

While the FTC has ordered technology giants to provide data on how they collect, use, and present personal information, as well as their advertising and user engagement practices, US publishers need to demonstrate a comprehensive argument that conveys how the platforms’ ability to control traffic (through search and social feeds), content (with Google News, Facebook News, YouTube, AMP and more) and even ads (Google search algorithms and Chrome ad blocking) is inherently anticompetitive.

Categorize The Platforms Or Split Them Up

We must remind lawmakers that these problems extend into every aspect of the media industry. Publishers have had little control over their site traffic for decades, and are now allowing the platforms to also control content distribution. We must band together to stop it while we have this unique opportunity to be heard.

In the United States, the industry criticized Google for a rule rolled out across its Chrome browser in May to block “heavy” ads. This algorithmic, and somewhat arbitrary, decision directly affects publisher ad revenue. The algorithm blocked the premium home page banner on the New York Times. There is no publisher on earth that has the means to block ads from showing on the New York Times. But Google, which owns Chrome as well as Google News, can do it. This omnipresent control needs to end.

This argument also stretches across Google’s (and Apple’s) ability to arbitrarily drop third-party cookies and the IDFA with no revenue accommodation for the affected publisher sites.

Publishers should have the leverage here, for what would Facebook and Google be without them? But how do they express their disdain for these monopolies’ ability to manage nearly all of the traffic on the internet while also controlling what content people see? To date, publishers have not united to address these issues inherent to Google’s and Facebook’s business models.

Now is the time to create that argument. The Better Ads Coalition, the IAB, and the W3C are the main entities that exist to create standards for all that touches Google and Facebook. But not one of these entities can provide regulation broad enough to truly counteract the issue.

After publishers fought back against Google AMP, a limited platform that didn’t fairly compensate them for mobile traffic, Google made concessions to improve it. Chrome is talking about “FloCs” as a one-to-many replacement for cookie targeting in W3C talks, but these battles are just child’s play for these giants. With the FTC now paying attention to Facebook, publishers can create a comprehensive public statement about the unfair practices of both platforms and expect a more substantive response.

Publishers need to lay the truth out clearly:

  • Google search algorithms and Facebook news feeds directly determine who gets traffic and how. The percentage of referred traffic from these two alone represents the majority of many sites’ total traffic.
  • Chrome browser settings block ads (and ad revenue) from publishers with no regulation or reasoning. With cookies and IDFA going away, ad targeting goes away on publisher sites.
  • Google and Facebook directly compete with publishers for their own viewers by showcasing content on their sites across Google News, Facebook News, YouTube and more.

The states reportedly collaborated with publishers to put their suit together, so we have a friendly ear. With 100 top publishers working together, we could finally see some traction, some movement to expose and manage the insane amount of control these two companies currently have over the digital media industry. The FTC might be listening. Facebook and Google might be listening. Publishers should start talking.

Stay in the know on the latest and greatest news, insights and announcements.