Tackling walled gardens: market domination and centralization of online news

In 2017 ARTICLE 19 joined seven organisations and almost seven hundred individual experts in a letter criticising the consolidation of news traffic to Google servers. Google’s Accelerated Media Pages (AMP) service ”keeps users within Google’s domain and diverts traffic away from other websites” unbeknown to users. Services like Facebook’s Instant Articles, Apple’s News Format and Baidu’s Mobile Instant Pages further add to technologies that exert dominance on the web.

This places people who read news and people who write news in a potentially bad place. 

Firstly, there is insufficient transparency around where economic power over news delivery lies from. Much like how mainstream media has been dealing with the confusing nature of native ads, these technical protocols blur the boundary between user-generated, sponsored and news content in what is surely a disservice to an informed democratic discussion. 

Secondly, the per-company protocols risk consolidating technical and economical power over news  to relatively few, non-interoperable platform providers to whom all news providers need to turn for distribution. This risks decreasing media pluralism. At the very least it causes a sensation of decreasing media pluralism, which might be equally harmful in a public discourse increasingly concerned with discrimination, filter bubbles and social justice.

It is true that Google is continuously improving AMP to address the concerns raised by users and publishers. As such we have seen an uptake in adoption of AMP – making effective content dissemination technologies help media companies be successful. However, a general concern remains that big web companies are building walled gardens from which neither news readers nor news publishers can escape.

But we should also remember that these walled garden projects address actual problems. A study in 2017 found that for online consumers of a major, national newspaper in France, 94% of all content loaded in the browser was irrelevant. When mobile subscriptions charge per data unit, this is a serious and costly inconvenience, leaving an open gap for web and online advertising companies to fill with innovations in streamlining content delivery. 

This is why the Internet Engineer Task Force’s move to address the question of bottlenecks in the control of web-based news traffic is a welcomed endeavour.  In July 2019, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) will host a workshop to explore the federation of news delivery formats. ARTICLE 19 welcomes the IAB’s leadership in tackling this fundamentally business and policy problem, which they state powerfully, ”… significant market power concentration among search engines and social networks creates a concern that [control over the efficient delivery of news content on the web] might allow them to pressure publishers to delegate technical authority, reinforcing consolidation.”

To guarantee a successful outcome for news readers, news writers and for freedom of expression we need a technical infrastructure fit for purpose.

By introducing properly standardized news delivery protocols that build on the past few years’ experiences, but also add new ideas that unify the good features of existing news delivery formats such as the proposed web packaging protocol, it could be possible to ensure fast and convenient delivery of news articles while protecting media pluralism online.