Google could block your California news. Will state leaders stand up to tech bully? | Opinion

Google’s decision to begin removing links to California news sites from search results not only threatens the economics of independent journalism, it also prevents citizens and communities from accessing essential news and information.

Google is trying to harm for-profit and nonprofit news outlets by striking out against California legislation that would compel tech giants to share digital advertising revenues with the news outlets that produce the content that Google users want and need.

By withholding news, Google is abusing its near-monopoly power over internet searches. When independent news begins to disappear in this so-called information age, citizens, communities and democracy are all threatened.


Google Vice President Jaffer Zaidi on Friday announced a “testing process” of removing links to California news sites for some of its users. This not-so-veiled threat to write California journalism out of its algorithm makes the case for why Google’s business practices must be reformed by the state legislature.

“Numerous countries worldwide have passed journalism compensation laws to recognize journalism’s vital role in a democracy,” said Billie McConkey, chief administrative officer for McClatchy, which owns The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, The Modesto Bee, the Merced Sun-Star and the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

“This is typical of how the dominant tech platforms have responded. They would rather block citizens’ access to essential information than simply pay fair market value for the content from which they profit.”

Google’s target

At issue is Assembly Bill 886 by Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland.

Known as the California Journalism Preservation Act, AB 886 would establish an arbitration process between large platforms like Google and qualifying journalism providers. Arbiters would decide how much of the platform’s journalism-related profits should be proportionately shared with news organizations and require that at least 70% of those funds be spent directly on future news gathering.

McClatchy, the California News Publishers Association and the Media Guild of the West are among the supporters of this legislation.

Introduced last year, AB 886 met with fierce opposition from Meta and Google. While the bill cleared the Assembly, Wicks and state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, agreed in July to re-engage on the measure this session after holding an informational hearing in December.

In a recent interview, Wicks was optimistic about the legislation’s prospects. “Since I introduced the bill, it’s only got more dire,” she said of continued layoffs and economic challenges facing news organizations. “I’d like to ideally land something on the governor’s desk … that will result in the platforms paying their fair share and leveling the playing field for our publishers.”

A pattern of threats

Google’s initial steps to excise California journalism from its search results are the latest in a series of disturbing threats and actions by the platform giants.

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, made the same threat in California last year. In Canada, which has already passed similar legislation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blasted the social media company last August for blocking news on its platforms as Canadians were scrambling to learn the latest information about devastating wildfires. In Australia, Meta has recently threatened to stop sharing profits with news outlets despite a national law requiring it to do so.

“The fact that one company can shut down the means by which 90% of the public find online content in order to achieve their own political and business ends shows just how much policymakers need to act and act now,” said Chuck Champion, president of the California News Publishers Association. “Google is not above the law, and they should not be allowed to act as if they are.”

The argument from Google’s Zaidi is, in essence, that sharing profits derived from California journalism would be bad for news gathering and California. He alleges it would lead to a proliferation of “ghost” newspapers producing “low-quality” content only to qualify for a share of the search engine’s money.

That dark vision hasn’t materialized in either Canada or Australia, though. And the California legislation includes guardrails to ensure that news outlets are investing in journalism jobs.

A leadership moment

California is the fifth-largest economy in the world. The state routinely leads the nation in shaping markets, from cleaner-running automobiles to accelerating the transition to renewable energy. This, too, is a moment when California needs to lead. Managing this information age to create economic fairness and healthy competition is an urgent imperative.

Distinguishing fact-based journalism from misinformation is becoming more challenging by the day. And at this pivotal and perilous moment, accurate and reliable journalism is vital to our democracy.

Throttling traffic to California news sites and depriving the public of access to news on any platform is beyond greedy. It is downright dangerous. The fact that what Google is doing is even legal speaks to the infancy of legislative and regulatory attempts to manage the technologies we have created.

With this punitive move, Google aims to inflict harm on news organizations. But Californians who want to be informed citizens will suffer the consequences.

Wicks, with the help of Umberg and other colleagues, needs to fine-tune and advance AB 886. This issue is so much bigger than journalism. It’s a question of whether we want to allow a handful of powerful tech companies to control what we know.