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‘Google is not the oracle of absolute truth’: Digital giant reckons with its responsibility to journalism

As part of the new Google News Initiative, the search giant owned by Alphabet Inc. is launching efforts to fight fake news and introducing tools for publishers to help them attract more paying subscribers and analyze data about their readers.

Matt Rourke/AP

With all the hoax headlines, election meddling, clickbait and conspiracy theories, the internet is starting to look more like a misinformation superhighway – and that's a problem for the digital giants who make billions of dollars a year off that ecosystem and are now facing pressure over its misuse.

This week, Google Inc. announced a US$300-million investment in a slate of programs to come to the aid of news publishers – an industry that's struggling partly because companies such as Google and Facebook control the majority of digital advertising revenues.

Because the content publishers create fuels Google's advertising business, it is in its interest that those publishers survive, said chief business officer Philipp Schindler during the Tuesday announcement. "If you don't grow, we don't grow," he told a media audience in New York.

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As part of the new Google News Initiative, the search giant owned by Alphabet Inc. is launching efforts to fight fake news and introducing tools for publishers to help them attract more paying subscribers and analyze data about their readers.

"We don't shy away from our responsibilities," said Richard Gingras, the head of Google News, in an interview with The Globe and Mail this week.

The Google News Initiative includes a new effort to display sources that people subscribe to more prominently in search results. What's your approach to giving primacy to reliable information?

I think it is important to recognize that Google is a search engine that should allow anyone to find anything in the corpus of expression. Google is not the oracle of absolute truth. It's important for society to understand where the bad information is out there. What we will always do is bias the efforts as best we can toward authoritative content – particularly in the context of breaking news events, because major crises do tend to attract the bad actors. How do we better understand the nature of those events, such that we can identify them as they're happening – at global scale – and then shift our systems into a mode where they do bias more toward authority? Which is not necessarily relevant or wise in other situations that aren't breaking news events.

This all taps into concerns about the authenticity of information online. Our view of the digital ecosystem as a whole is changing. Facebook is under extreme pressure this week, but there are also larger questions about the responsibility of the digital giants to clean up the information ecosystem.

Those of us, like Google, that do play important roles in the ecosystem, it's absolutely appropriate that we be scrutinized. It's up to us in how we address these things. When looking at the digital players, it's important to recognize that not all platforms are alike. With Google Search, Google News, our platform is the open web itself. We're not arbiters of truth. We're not trying to determine what's good information and what's not. When I look at Google Search, for instance, our objective – people come to us for answers, and we're very good at giving them answers. But with many questions, particularly in the area of news and public policy, there is not one single answer. So we see our role as [to] give our users, citizens, the tools and information they need – in an assiduously apolitical fashion – to develop their own critical thinking and hopefully form a more informed opinion. Every one of those words is important in guiding us in what we do, particularly in this environment of misinformation.

Here in Canada, the Heritage Minister has been reviewing our cultural policy, which affects the news industry and others, and that has sparked more discussion about the state of news media. The Minister said last week that the digital giants – Facebook and Google – should play a direct role in supporting local journalism, because these are not neutral platforms. She suggested, rather, that they have a responsibility to the countries in which they operate – especially considering how big a slice of overall digital advertising spending they command. What do you think about that?

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I want to be careful in my understanding of what is meant by direct involvement. … We don't think it's appropriate for Google to step into the environment of actually funding content. We're loath to get into the role of Google deciding which news organizations might get financial support and which not – and what kind of journalism gets financial support and which not. Our view is: Let's focus on the foundational aspects that allow that to happen – by anyone who's in a position journalistically to take advantage of those capabilities and create high-quality journalism.

One of the announcements this week was a new program called Subscribe with Google, allowing readers to sign up for a subscription to a news outlet more quickly through their Google account. Reports have suggested that when customers take that route, Google takes a 5 to 15 per cent cut. Why?

It was not a core objective on our side that we now want to be in the subscription business. We don't look at this as a new revenue stream. Our driving objective is … to drive additional subscription success and create sustainable models for news. The revenue shares are extremely generous – we're simply looking to cover our cost of operation, whether that's credit card fulfilment or what have you. We have the ability – we know the users, we have their credit cards in some cases – to make those processes friction-free.

Data are hugely valuable to publishers. Advertisers are demanding information about audiences when they buy advertising from publishers, so that ads are targeted. When people are subscribing through their Google accounts – and are logged in across devices to those news subscriptions by virtue of being logged into their Google accounts – who owns that data? Publishers require access to data about their readers. How does that work when the relationship with those readers is managed through Google?

That's a very important question, and I want to be very clear here. This is not an opportunity for Google to take more data. The fact is, this is still the publisher's site. These are the publishers' users and subscribers. They get all the data they currently get and more. There's no diversion of any underlying behavioural data about the users. That all will continue to operate the way it operates today.

What's the larger philosophy behind all of these announcements this week?

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We understand how important journalism is to our societies, how important it is to the health of our democracies. The only way we're going to get to a better place as a society is for folks to work together. I mean tech companies like Google, various platforms, the publishing community, the journalism community – the public policy community, for that matter. We're only going to be successful with this if we can build strong, productive relationships with these stakeholders, particularly the publishing community.

There are some who will see this effort – or any effort by Facebook or Google in relation to journalism – as part of a broader strategy to avoid being regulated into more strict management of content on their platforms. How do you respond?

I'll get back to a core point about what motivates us, because I think it's important. Are we doing these things because it's a good idea and important for society? Of course. Does it build better relationships? Of course. The core objective through the Google lens is simply this: It's recognizing that Google, as a company, our success is tied to the success of the open web as a platform. If there isn't a rich ecosystem of content out there, then the value and relevance of Google Search itself goes down. And the use of our ad platforms … is dependent on their success in that environment. So yes, we have high-minded objectives with this. But these are also practical realities of our business – where the objectives of publishers and the objectives of Google, this is where they come together. How do we create an open web that can support quality journalism in a highly sustainable way?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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