If data is the new oil, Google is monarch, but an uprising is happening

If data is the new oil, Google is monarch, but an uprising is happening

India is on the cusp of joining Australia in halting the marauding Google in its tracks, it's good that it's doing a lot more than merely imposing ‘Google tax’ as it did in 2018

In the 2003 Tamil movie Boys, comedian Senthil sends out his young fellow mendicant thrice a day to collect food offered by various temples in Chennai at the appointed time.  After a couple of errands, the fellow mendicant loses his cool, and throws the gauntlet at Senthil — “go and collect the food yourself; why should I run errands for you?”

Senthil sneers and tells the youngster if the latter went alone, he would get nothing. For, the vital tool — data on who serves what at what time — was with him and him alone.  “This is the information age,” he goes on to taunt the fellow mendicant who is as indolent as Senthil. The chastened youngster picks up the vessels resignedly to do yet another round of errand for a common cause.

Much the same is happening between the print media all over the world and Google (used metaphorically for all advertisement aggregators including Meta, given its dominant role).  Google knows my surfing and searching habits by employing algorithms, cookies and what-have-you and squirrelling away the information a la Senthil.  

Google is watching

I am not alone in being a victim of invasion of privacy.  Practically, all netizens are. Google has by now prevailed upon a large chunk of online publications to let it do the advertising for them based on the unique proclivities of netizens.  

Last evening, I was looking for side by side refrigerators.  I might have given up for the nonce but not Google.  It has been tailing me ever since.  I open digital newspapers that have subscribed to Google ads.  Presto, side by side refrigerator ads tumble in at relentless speed not fleetingly but for a sufficient length of time.  

The refrigerator advertisers have to pay per click. To be sure, the per click arrangement is reasonable at first blush but the devil lies in the details.  The advertiser has no clue about the clicks made or eyeballs attracted but he doesn’t demur. 

The worst deal was till recently gotten by the publishers whose digital newspapers were the source of income for Google and yet it dared to thumb its nose at them by paying a pittance.  The lead in reining in the  Google avarice was taken by the Australian government by enacting the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code in March 2021 that obliges Google to enter into meaningful contracts with the Australian virtual media on revenue share from advertisements.  

Google fell in line kicking and screaming.  The Australian government has found to its gratification that as many as 30 commercial agreements were struck between digital platforms (Google and Meta) and news businesses since the enactment of the Code in March 2021. Such a Code indeed has had a catalytic effect, making a few other governments including Indian bestir. 

Checks on Google

The Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance observed in its report on anti-competitive practices by big tech companies as follows:

“India has diverse and numerous news publishers who get advertising revenues primarily through Systematically Important Digital Intermediaries (SIDIs) and [we] are of the opinion that regulatory provisions are required to ensure that news publishers are able to establish contracts with these SIDIs through a fair and transparent process.”

India thus is on the cusp of joining Australia in halting the marauding Google in its tracks.  It is good that the government has woken up to do a lot more than merely imposing ‘Google tax’ as it did in 2018.  While such a tax is indeed necessary given the source rule of taxation, such a source rule should find resonance in the advertising world, too.  A publisher whose platform is gatecrashed by Google cannot be left twiddling its thumb.  And by the way, Google doesn’t lose sleep over the Indian Google tax, which it conveniently passes on to the advertisers. 

As it is, online publishers are not in any case so helpless as to be dependent on Google’s crumbs.  Many of them have erected paywalls to hide their premium articles and content.  Discerning readers who treasure such writeups do not mind paying, but in a country inured to cheap printed newspapers bankrolled by advertisers, there is considerable unwillingness to pay up.  

Own ads vs Google ads

Transferring news content to videos and uploading them on YouTube is also proving effective for online publishers.  ‘Own ads’ have practically vanished with publications either themselves or, on the advice of their advertising agencies, seeing merit in plumping for Google ads.  Media shopping was earlier a tiresome job for ad agencies.  Now that burden is shouldered by Google.

At the end of the day, however, Google is a necessary evil.  As it is, the crumbs thrown at advertisers by Google are pitifully small and unfair.  One hopes that after the Indian government enacts a suitable law, online publishers’ hands would be strengthened.  

But then Google, too, should mend its ways and finetune its algorithms so that ads don’t flash robotically — I search for refrigerator and I am flooded with refrigerator ads for days on end; I search for inner garments, and I am flooded with inner garment brand ads even after I have bought them.

Read More
Next Story