The executives who run big, ailing news organizations—in particular Tom Curley of AP and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch—complain every chance they get that search engines—in particular Google—are stealing from them, because Google links to their stories but doesn't pay the AP or News Corp. to do so. The way the news bosses see it, that is theft, plain and simple. They say Google is making tons of money by shamelessly lifting their content, and it's driving newspapers out of business.
At a meeting of media executives going on this week in Beijing, Murdoch and Curley gave impassioned speeches, saying they're mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore. They warn that aggregators like Google had better start paying up, or else.
"We content creators have been too slow to react to the free exploitation of news by third parties without input or permission," Curley told the audience.
"The aggregators and plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content," Murdoch said. "But if we do not take advantage of the current movement toward paid content, it will be the content creators—the people in this hall—who will pay the ultimate price and the content kleptomaniacs who triumph."
Of course, that's not even close to true. Curley and Murdoch's macho outrage is calculated to be quotable, but it is fake.
Here's why: go to Google News, or type a newsy topic like "Obama wins Nobel" into Google's search box. What do you get? Headlines and very brief teasers linking to news stories from news sites. If you click on them, you are taken to that news site, where you can read the story, which is surrounded by that site's ads. What, exactly, did Google steal in this scenario? If you don't click on the link, you don't see the story. If you do click on the link, you see the story on the originator's Web site.
Instead of stealing, I would call this something else: a free service that drives lots of readers to news Web sites that wouldn't get nearly as much traffic, if any at all, if Google didn't link to their sites for free. That may not be as pithy as crying "thief!" But it has the advantage of being true.
Murdoch and Curley know this. How do we know they know? Because if they really thought Google was stealing from them, and if they really wanted Google to stop driving all those readers to their Web sites at no charge, they would simply stop Google from linking to their news stories.
Google doesn't force Web sites to be included in its search listings. The people who run any site can remove it from Google's results with a few keystrokes. All they have to do is go to the Web site's robots.txt file and type this:
Poof, the site becomes invisible to Google. Their stories will no longer show up in Google searches. It will be as if they don't exist.
It's not like this is some big secret. Google even has a page on its Web site explaining step by step how to do it. Yet neither AP nor News Corp. has taken this simple step to stop the marauding Google pirates from pillaging their cargo. Why? Because they know that their traffic would dry up overnight. They'd rather blame someone else for their failure to compete in a changing marketplace. They happily take all the customers Google sends them for free, and then accuse Google of theft. Classy.
Perhaps I'm wrong, and Curley and Murdoch really didn't know that they had the power all along to rid themselves of the Google scourge any time they wanted to. If that's so, they know now. So go right ahead, gentlemen. Stop the thievery. Pull the plug on Google right now. I double-dog dare you.