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Google antitrust cases may not be enough to stop AI-powered search from obliterating news industry: experts

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Google’s AI-powered search engine is seen as a potential death blow for cash-strapped media outlets — and some experts claim a fresh US antitrust clampdown is the industry’s only hope for survival.

Critics warn that Google will take dangerous control over the flow of information and ad dollars across the internet unless the courts or Congress intervene to rein in AI Overviews — an auto-generated summary that effectively demotes links to other websites and drains publishers of valuable traffic.

The impact is expected to be “catastrophic,” with one study estimating websites could lose up to 64% of their organic traffic. That’s despite a slew of embarrassing gaffes throughout AI Overviews’ rollout, such as instructing users to eat rocks and add glue to their pizza.

Critics warn Google will take dangerous control over the flow of information and ad dollars across the internet unless the courts or Congress intervene to rein in AI Overviews. Rafael Henrique – stock.adobe.com

To “train” its AI search engine, Google also stands accused of scraping copyrighted news articles without credit or compensation. On May 28, News Media Alliance CEO Danielle Coffey wrote a letter asking both the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to “stop Google’s anticompetitive conduct before the effects become irreversible.”

“Government stepping in to identify this as unfair competition, government stepping in to identify this as an illegal use of power, that’s where we could get recourse,” wrote Coffey, whose nonprofit represents more than 2,200 publishers, including The Post.

The DOJ and FTC declined to comment.

DOJ antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter said in an interview with the FT last week that the agency will move “with urgency” to probe “monopoly choke points and the competitive landscape” related to AI — including tech firms’ use of data to train their models.

Kanter didn’t specifically call out Google’s generative AI push in the interview, but experts said the omission was likely a calculated one to avoid accusations of public cheerleading given the DOJ’s active lawsuits against the company, helmed by CEO Sundar Pichai.

To “train” its AI search engine, Google also stands accused of scraping copyrighted news articles without credit or compensation. AP

During a recent AI regulatory workshop co-hosted by the DOJ, Kanter spoke specifically about the threat the technology poses to journalism, art and other creative pursuits.

“In the absence of competition, we may see the problems market power on the internet has caused in journalism spread to other critical content creation markets,” Kanter said. He added that people who “create and produce these inputs must be properly compensated.”

“If firms in the AI ecosystem violate the antitrust laws, the antitrust division will have something to say about that,” Kanter added.

The Justice Department is already suing Google for alleged illegal anticompetitive conduct in separate lawsuits targeting its online search empire and its digital ad business. The company raked in $237.86 billion from digital ads in 2023 alone.

DOJ antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter said in an interview with the FT last week that the agency will move “with urgency” to probe “monopoly choke points and the competitive landscape” related to AI. Getty Images

Some legal experts warn that the DOJ’s existing cases are ill equipped to address the news industry’s concerns.

Congressional intervention — or even a fresh antitrust case specifically focused on AI — would be a more effective path for tackling the issue, according to Christine Bartholomew, a professor at University at Buffalo School of Law who specializes in antitrust litigation.

“I think the AI answer and the protection of journalism has to be Congress finally stepping in and saying we need to deal with AI — and not piecemeal through litigation, but holistically,” Bartholomew said.

Other experts, however, believe the DOJ’s lawsuits could result in remedies that provide some breathing room for news publishers.

Potential remedies include the forced divestiture of Google’s Chrome web browser or Android phone software to add friction to the market, Tim Wu, a noted antitrust scholar and professor at Columbia Law School, said at a recent American Economic Liberties Project conference.

News Media Alliance CEO Danielle Coffey wrote a letter asking both the DOJ and the FTC to “stop Google’s anticompetitive conduct before the effects become irreversible.” Getty Images

Wu warned, however, that any remedies in the Google antitrust cases could quickly be rendered irrelevant if they don’t address AI’s rapid transformation of the internet economy, which will have major implications on both search and digital advertising.

“The most successful remedies in history have been more forward-looking than backward-looking,” Wu said. “Any remedy which is only about trying to reinvigorate competition in search, I think, is too limited. This remedy, if it’s not thinking about competition in the AI ecosystem, is not doing a good job.”

David Dinielli, a former special counsel for the DOJ’s antitrust division, said more competition in the ad tech sector “will deliver far greater returns to publishers selling advertising” than they have had under Google’s yoke.

More competition in search could likewise prompt rival firms to strike fresh partnerships with trusted news outlets, according to Dinielli.

Liz Reid, Google head of search, discusses AI Overviews at an event last month. AP

“Restoring competition in these markets necessarily is forward-looking, and might generate benefits to news publishers that, from our current perch, we can’t even predict,” he added.

In the search trial, the Justice Department has accused Google of using tens of billions of dollars in annual payouts to Apple and other firms to maintain an illegal monopoly over 90% of the online search market. A federal judge will decide the case later this year.

The second DOJ case is seeking a breakup of Google’s ad technology business, including a potential forced sale of its ad manager platform. Google has bizarrely offered to pay the US government’s proposed damages in full — a move critics saw as a sign the company was desperate to avoid a risky jury trial.

In May, the bipartisan Senate AI Working Group released a “roadmap” for AI policy that included a call for safeguards to address the “AI-related concerns of professional content creators and publishers.”

While the DOJ has taken the lead on recent antitrust action against Google, FTC Chair Lina Khan has signaled her agency is actively examining the issues raised by news publishers on AI.

FTC Chair Lina Khan has signaled her agency is actively examining the issues raised by news publishers on AI. CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

During a Wall Street Journal conference last month, Khan referenced Big Tech’s use of data-scraping while pointing out that the law “prohibits unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

In February, Khan also flagged Big Tech’s role in eroding the news industry’s economic model.

“Historically, we’ve seen how it was really important for policymakers to play an active role in structuring markets to make sure that an independent free press was viable,” Khan told Axios.

Google did not return multiple requests for comment.

Google has tried to downplay concerns about AI-powered search — with multiple executives declaring in recent days that the company would continue “sending valuable traffic to publishers and creators” through search.

The Justice Department is already suing Google for alleged illegal anticompetitive conduct in separate lawsuits targeting its online search empire and its digital ad business. dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

“With AI Overviews, people are visiting a greater diversity of websites for help with more complex questions; we also see that the links included in AI Overviews get more clicks than if the page had appeared as a traditional web listing for that query,” Google said in a recent blog post.

Coffey remains unconvinced by Google’s claims and called the assertion that publishers would benefit from AI summaries “insulting.”

“If we are going to buy that they’re doing something out of the goodness of their hearts to benefit us and not for their own financial gain, I mean come on, here’s the bridge I want to sell you,” Coffey said. “Google is doing this because it is good for Google.”

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