Google’s AI-First Ambitions Sideline Publishers, Boost Its Ability To Filter and Control Information

By Rick Findlay – Reclaim The Net

The internet’s most frequented page is on the verge of a transformation unlike any in its 25-year history.

Last week, at Google I/O 2024, as Liz Reid, Google’s head of Search, gushed on stage about their AI-powered future, one couldn’t help but feel a pang of irony. “Google will do the Googling for you,” she proclaimed, envisioning a future where Google’s AI sifts through the web’s content and spits out neatly packaged summaries, removing the need to visit any websites.

Google’s AI Overview feature, as shown at Google I/O

How convenient – for Google, that is.

An ideologically driven monopoly further inserting itself between people and content, filtering out what it thinks you should be allowed to see (and what you shouldn’t) at a level never seen before. What could possibly go wrong?

At the event, the tech behemoth unveiled its latest shiny toys – an AI agent named Astra, a potentially reincarnated Google Glass, and something called Gems. Amidst the fanfare, though, there was a glaring omission: any mention of the voices who populate the web with the very work that makes Google’s empire possible.

But the origins of Google’s powerful monopoly and control over much of the internet’s content came a couple of decades ago when publishers and website creators made a deal with a devil whose motto was, at the time, “Don’t be evil.”

The Early Days of Google

“Two decades ago, Google became the darling of Silicon Valley as a scrappy startup with an innovative way to search the emerging internet,” the Department of Justice wrote in its 2020 complaint. “That Google is long gone. The Google of today is a monopoly gatekeeper for the internet, and one of the wealthiest companies on the planet.”

There was a time when newspapers and magazines were kings, when people paid for their daily dose of information. The morning ritual of reading the paper was as sacred as the first cup of coffee. And as for publishers, those subscriptions allowed them to have a direct relationship with their readers and customers, without being influenced by an intermediary.

But as the internet dawned, this once-untouchable industry found itself on the brink of an existential crisis.

The transition was swift and brutal. In the early days of the web, news outlets and publishers thought they saw a digital gold rush, envisioning a future where their reach extended beyond the physical limitations of print. They rushed online, eager to embrace this new medium. Initially, some charged for access, mirroring their print subscription models.

However, it soon became clear that the internet of the time operated on a different set of economics. The vast expanse of free information available online made many people recoil at the idea of paying for original content.

The Fox News website 1997

Enter Google. As the internet became the primary source of news, Google’s search engine emerged as the gateway to the web. With its innovative algorithms, Google quickly became the preferred tool for navigating the sprawling chaos of online information. Users could find articles, blogs, videos, and any other content they desired with just a few keystrokes. Google soon amassed a monopolistic 90+% market share in the United States.

United States Search Engine Market Share 2024

But Google’s rise wasn’t just about superior technology; it was also about a business model that would forever change the landscape of online publishing. Google offered a “free” service to users, including the email service Gmail, instead monetizing its platform through advertising, tracking people’s entire digital life, and harvesting people’s most personal data.

Its AdSense program allowed websites to host ads, earning revenue based on user clicks or impressions. For news outlets facing an audience that was, in those days, wanting to avoid putting their payment information online (something alien to today’s internet user) this seemed like a lifeline. Many abandoned subscription models in favor of the ad-supported approach powered by Google.

This shift had far-reaching consequences and we’re all still paying the price for it today. Publishers inadvertently handed over immense power to Google, allowing it to monopolize monetization on the web. As the aggregator of the world’s information, Google became the intermediary between content creators and their audiences. This middleman role allowed Google to amass vast amounts of data on user behavior, preferences, and habits. With this data, Google could offer highly targeted advertising, making it an indispensable tool for marketers and further cementing its monopoly.

As more publishers adopted Google’s ad model, the company’s dominance grew. Google’s invasive tracking ads became ubiquitous, following users across the web, and collecting data at every click.

This allowed Google to refine its ad targeting capabilities, making its platform even more attractive to advertisers. The more advertisers flocked to Google, the more dependent publishers became on the traffic and revenue generated by the search giant.

But this relationship came with its own set of handcuffs. As advertisers pumped money into Google’s ad machine, they began to wield significant influence over the content that was produced.

Advertisers, ever mindful of their brand image, were keen to avoid associating with controversial or sensitive topics. This led to a chilling effect on journalism and website content. Publishers, desperate for ad dollars to stay afloat, started self-censoring, avoiding stories that might spook advertisers. Publishers skirted around controversial topics to stay in business.

For example, publishers don’t want to be critical of Big Pharma if they want to still be paid for their work.

The content became increasingly vapid.

This advertiser-driven censorship wasn’t subtle. Entire sections of news sites were reshaped to be more “brand-safe,” a euphemism for bland and inoffensive. Investigative journalism took a hit, with fewer resources allocated to in-depth reporting that could ruffle feathers. The very essence of what journalism is supposed to be – a fearless pursuit of truth – was compromised in the name of ad dollars and appealing to the masses.

Meanwhile, Google’s power extended beyond just influencing content. With its monopoly over search traffic, Google had the ultimate say in who gets seen and who gets buried. A tweak in Google’s search algorithm could send a website’s traffic plummeting overnight. More insidiously, Google had the power to delist websites entirely, effectively erasing them from the internet for most users. This wasn’t just theoretical – it happened. Websites that ran afoul of Google’s ever-evolving content policies found themselves blacklisted, their lifeline to the public severed without appeal.

As publishers became increasingly reliant on Google’s traffic and ad revenue, many neglected to build direct relationships with their readers. Gone were the days of fostering loyal audiences through subscriptions and direct engagement. Instead, publishers relied on the fickle whims of search algorithms and social media trends to drive traffic. This detachment from their audience made them even more vulnerable to the whims of Google and corporate advertisers.

The consequences of this abandonment are stark. When Google decides to tweak its algorithm or enforce its content policies, publishers have little recourse. They can be cut off from their audience almost instantaneously. Independent sources, which often rely on niche audiences and controversial content, are particularly vulnerable. Online censorship, whether through de-indexing or ad demonetization, can sever the connection between these publishers and their readers, effectively silencing them.

Many mainstream publishers were happy to play by Google’s rules, as long as the tech giant kept sending them lots of traffic.

But all of that could be about to change. Last week, during the event, Google unveiled a sweeping redesign of its search results page, heavily incorporating artificial intelligence. This new format significantly alters how users interact with search results. Instead of the familiar “10 blue links” dominating the screen, these traditional results now make a fleeting appearance before being displaced by a vibrant AI-generated summary. This change relegates Google’s other links to the depths of the page, often making them nearly invisible.

Google’s AI Overview feature, as shown at Google I/O

While Google’s current search results page is far from perfect—cluttered with links from sites that have mastered optimization trickery—the new format represents a radical shift in information retrieval. Some might see these changes as improvements, but they also come with considerable drawbacks.

Google’s idea is that it’s just giving people directly what they want. Liz Reid’s comments underscore Google’s stance: “People’s time is valuable, right? They deal with hard things,” she remarked to Wired. “If you have an opportunity with technology to help people get answers to their questions, to take more of the work out of it, why wouldn’t we want to go after that?”

Google’s trajectory towards this AI-centric model has been evident for years. These tools are convenient for straightforward queries, such as time conversions and quick math, delivering quick answers at the expense of pushing traditional links further down the page. The company has progressively introduced features like the Knowledge Graph and featured snippets, designed to keep users within Google’s ecosystem rather than directing them to external sources. Increasingly, the company has tried to not only keep more of the traffic for itself but also influence more of the conversation surrounding a topic. This was noticeable during the COVID era when Google’s “authoritative sources” messaging was presented to YouTube users when they searched for a related topic. The company forced sources such as The World Health Organization, even when some of that information turned out to be untrue. Those that contradicted the WHO’s claims were buried or deleted.

While some might find comfort in these changes, those who prefer to sift through sources themselves are likely to be dismayed by the relegation of these links.

Google is making it difficult for people to consider investing time, money, and effort in sharing their expertise if their contributions are hidden from those actively seeking information.

When their posts, filled with valuable insights and knowledge, don’t reach an audience, it diminishes the incentive to contribute. Instead of serving their intended purpose of educating and informing others, these posts risk becoming mere fodder for AI.

The situation worsens when ads are added to the mix as the traditional links get pushed further down the page.

Google champions AI’s transformative power in searches, arguing that it justifies the new format. “With this powerful new technology, we can unlock entirely new types of questions you never thought Search could answer, and transform the way information is organized, to help you sort through and make sense of what’s out there,” wrote Elizabeth Reid, VP and GM of Search at Google when the early ideas of this were first unveiled last year. While AI summaries may indeed be useful for some queries, their reliability is questionable.

AI language models are notorious for confidently presenting false information, and the AI Overview feature could exacerbate this issue on a large scale. Google’s current search accuracy is already suspect.

Google has already shown its immense bias within its AI, allowing its particular Silicon Valley ideological bent to show across its AI system Gemini.

Tech research company Gartner estimated that traffic to the web from search engines will fall around 25 percent by 2026.

Raptive, a company offering digital media, audience engagement, and advertising services warns that upcoming changes to search could spell substantial financial losses for content creators, particularly independents. The company estimates that creators might face a staggering $2 billion in losses, with certain websites potentially seeing their traffic plummet by up to 66%.

This cycle raises concerns about the future of the internet. Google scraped everyone’s content on the open web, monetized it, and is now using it to serve answers to its users with reduced publisher involvement.

Google’s push for “efficiency” could lead to a diluted version of the web, dominated by biased and ideologically-driven AI-generated summaries, devoid of in-depth exploration.

Those most at risk are those independent publishers that were late to the game in building up email subscriptions and direct relationships with readers. More and more publishers could increasingly have to lock up their content just to survive, let alone flourish. The open web is at risk.

The shift towards AI-dominated search results is more than just a technological evolution; it’s a power grab. Google’s transformation from a simple search engine into the ultimate gatekeeper and filterer of information has profound implications. This isn’t just about making searches more efficient; it’s also about control. By prioritizing AI-generated summaries over traditional links, Google is further tightening its grip on what information gets visibility and what gets buried in the digital abyss. It’s a shift that threatens to further undermine independent publishers and erode the diversity of information available to the public. The need for a resilient, independent media ecosystem and independent voices has never been more critical.

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