Lawmakers trying to save California journalism collide with Google’s nihilistic view of the world  

Photograph by Zanyar Ibrahim

By Scott Thomas Anderson

When I recently published a column about Google’s complacency in allowing click-baiters to gaslight the public with Artificial Intelligence – including through bot-plagiarized “news” pieces insidiously disguised to appear written by humans – I couldn’t have known that in a matter of days the tech giant would have a full-scale war going with every media outlet in the state.

The struggle is over The California Journalism Preservation Act, a bill that would force mega-platforms to pay newspapers back for the content they use to generate web traffic. For years Google and Facebook’s near-monopoly on digital advertising dollars, which partly comes from flashing news headlines and bridging to newsroom homepages, was the main factor in decimating professional journalism jobs across the nation, not to mention the ability of local reporters cover the most basic actions of county and city governments.

In many cases, funding real investigative journalism on the public’s behalf is now a total impossibility.   

The CJPA, authored by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland, is very similar to laws that have already been enacted in Canada and Australia. It demands that mega-platforms give local media sites a “journalism usage fee” for the content they’re paying to produce. And for the most part, the revenues from such fees can’t go to newspaper shareholders or vulture capitalists, better-known as the greedy lowlifes who started destroying journalism before Facebook was even a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s never-blinking eye.

Wicks wrote her bill to make sure that at least 70% of the money it generates has to be spent on reporters and news staff.

While bipartisanship is an almost unheard-of phenomenon around the capital these days, The California Journalism Preservation Act passed through the Assembly with support from both Republicans and Democrats. It’s now being prepared for State Senate hearings. Google’s response has been to toss most newspapers in California off its search engine, a vindictive tantrum that it previously threw with our neighbors to the north and in the Land Down Under. It is a move that blocks an unsuspecting public from finding the information it wants and needs.

“This undemocratic action by Google, which controls more than 90% of the search market, would leave Californians unable to access critical information,” the California News Publishers Association said in a statement last week. “Their action underscores the need for a bill like the California Journalism Preservation Act – Google cannot be allowed to act as if it is above the law … Newsrooms and publishers will not sit back and allow Google to undermine the free press and democracy.”

The Los Angeles Times, one of the news sites that we know for sure was thrown off of Google, echoed that sentiment in an editorial.

“Whatever happened to Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto?” The Times Editorial Board wrote. “Given the power of Google and other major tech platforms, why would news outlets take on this fight? Because the status quo is unsustainable. It’s important to understand how most news organizations fund their reporting, and why there’s a national and worldwide effort to press Google, Meta and other major platforms to share advertising revenue with the companies and people producing news content … Indeed, Google’s power flex demonstrates how much this one corporation controls access to information. If lawmakers weren’t concerned about that before, they should be now.”

That last point is critical, lest SN&R readers think this is just a self-serving screed written by professional if precariously employed journalist. As Nilay Patel from The Verge recently pointed out on Ezra Klein’s podcast, when reporters confronted Google about how it was allowing A.I. to deceive people about non-humanly produced news stories, the company responded that “for them, it was not really a relevant question whether an article was by an A.I. or a human.”

I mentioned that quote to a tech journalist based in Sacramento, who immediately replied, “That’s just flat-out nihilism.”

Yes, and it’s a sign that Google, who is in an unregulated arms race to develop potentially extinction-level A.I. technology, believes that it can act with complete and total impunity. The California Journalism Preservation Act is just one of many lines that needs to be drawn in the sand for every mega-platform that’s developing A.I. models in the dark.  

*This is an opinion piece by the Editor of Sacramento News & Review

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