Why Is Google Removing News Links for Some Californians?

So theoretically, if you are part of the “small percentage of California users,” when you search for a news topic in California, you will not see articles from local publications within the state like KQED, the San Francisco Chronicle or the LA Times.

But it’s unclear how many people are actually affected by this change — or how long the “test” will continue.

It’s also unclear if users can turn this test off in their settings. A Google spokesperson declined KQED’s request to provide any further information about the test — or who is affected — outside of the April 12 blog post.

Why is this happening now?

“We’re mostly viewing this as a political attack as much as it is a technical test,” said Steve Waldman, the CEO of the nonprofit Rebuild Local News. “This is Google sending a message that if the legislature passes the bill that they don’t like, the newsrooms and residents of California will be punished for that.”

Waldman referenced similar legislation passed in Australia and Canada, which large tech companies also pushed back against.“I think, for Google, they’re looking at all these efforts to push them into providing money to publishers, and they’re thinking this is spreading around the world, and it’s creating an enormous potential liability for them,” Waldman said.

“They’re very focused on California because they’re worried that whatever comes out of California could set the template for the rest of the United States and also for other countries,” he said.

In June 2023, Instagram and Facebook’s parent company, Meta, began blocking news content from appearing in Canadian users’ feeds since Canada required the company to pay local news publications for linking to or featuring their work.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the company of “putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety” for its decision to keep blocking news content in the country even as devastating wildfires raged.

This is what Canadian Instagram users see when trying to access news:

Meta has also threatened to do this again in California if the California Journalism Preservation Act were to pass. In May 2023, a Meta spokesperson stated that the company would “be forced to remove news from Facebook and Instagram rather than pay into a slush fund that primarily benefits big, out-of-state media companies under the guise of aiding California publishers.”

In late March, Instagram rolled out a new default setting that limited posts “likely to mention governments, elections or social topics that affect a group of people and/or society at large” appearing in user’s feeds. For many, this setting was automatically set and came with little or no warning.

So, how can I make sure I continue to see local news online?

Regardless of whether Google’s test targets an individual in California to remove news links, Waldman said that in a landscape where news is being throttled on search or social media, audiences may need to start actively looking for it instead — since news “may not just arrive in your lap or on your screen quite the same way.”

“You may have to be a little more proactive in both getting it and also supporting the local media,” Waldman said. “Advertising business for local publications has kind of plummeted, and local news is not really going to survive without the support from the community.”

If you noticed something different with your Google searches or otherwise suspect you might be part of Google’s test to limit news content in California for some users, there are other ways to find local coverage:

  • Visiting a news outlet’s website directly
  • Following your preferred news outlet on social media
  • Signing up for push notifications and breaking news alerts from your preferred news outlet
  • If your news outlet has an app, downloading and viewing articles on that platform
  • If your outlet has a podcast, listen to their feed on your preferred platforms like Apple Podcasts or Stitcher
  • If your outlet is a television or radio station, tune into that station.

Waldman said that “going into an election year that’s going to be full of misinformation,” he found it “incredibly disheartening that at the moment when we should be providing more information and more news that’s reliable … Google is temporarily choking back the availability of reliable local news.”

What’s the backstory of the bill Google is resisting?

The bill Google is responding to is AB 886 — the California Journalism Preservation Act — which, if passed, would require platforms to send “a journalism usage fee payment to each eligible digital journalism provider.” This means that Google, Facebook and other tech companies would need to pay a bargained percentage of the tech company’s ad revenue to news outlets for using media outlets’ work.

In return, the newsroom must use 70% of these funds to hire new reporters or support existing staff. The bill would also prohibit tech companies from retaliating against local outlets by placing their stories lower on a search result page.

AB 886 passed the California assembly in 2023. It would need to pass the California Senate before being signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Related: How Can I Call My Representative? A Step-by-Step Guide to the Process

The bill — introduced by Buffy Wicks (CA-14) — noted that over the past 10 years, newspaper advertising has decreased by 66% and staff by 44%. Critics say that Facebook and Google have played a large role in this breakdown by monopolizing the digital advertising market, leaving little revenue for local news outlets.

Northwestern University’s “The State of Local News” report hypothesized that by the end of 2024, “the country will have lost a third of its newspapers since 2005.” Over 500 journalists — national and local publications — lost their jobs in 2024 so far, barely over four months. In California, the LA Times laid off over a hundred people in January.

“In California, there’s been a 68% drop in the number of reporters since 2005,” Waldman said. “It’s a catastrophe, and it’s totally appropriate to ask the tech companies to help pay for fixing that.”

In the journalism and First Amendment world, advocates of the bill say it finally allows news outlets leverage over Big Tech, which they argue has gone seemingly unchecked for years. Opponents say the measure would incentivize clickbait and favor larger newsrooms.

Waldman said that given the bill’s current language —which is still open to potential revision — he agrees that larger out-of-state newsrooms would benefit more from the legislation than mid- to small-sized newsrooms in California.

“We have to come up with some public policies that are really helping the medium and small-sized papers and family newspapers, websites, nonprofits, Black and Hispanic newspapers, public radio,” he said.

What does Google say?

In Google’s April 12 blog post announcing the test to limit news links, the company highlights the Google News Showcase, a feed of news articles curated for users. The Google News Showcase partners with 200 new organizations in California alone, according to Google.

But Google would now be “pausing further investments in the California news ecosystem” — including establishing new Google News Showcase partnerships, any planned expansions of Google News and the company’s product and licensing program for news organizations — “until there’s clarity on California’s regulatory environment,” Google VP Zaidi said in the blog post.

Zaidi also claimed that “just 2% of queries on Google Search are news-related,” which he framed as part of a general shift in “the rapidly changing way people are looking for and consuming information.”

However, a 2023 research study commissioned by Swiss media publishers found that “information searches” account for 55% of all internet searches, which would potentially draw from journalistic content. The research also found that the market share of Google searches that use media content results in an estimated revenue of $440 million per year.

Waldman also noted that with a company as big as Google, “just 2%” can mean a lot. “Google does place snippets of the content on their search engines,” he said. “A lot of people just look at the snippets and never click through.”.

“Google is actually getting a lot of value out of the work and money that’s been invested by the news organizations in creating content.”

Are there other legal proposals that are aiming to support journalism?

The Journalism Competition & Preservation Act

The Journalism Competition & Preservation Act, introduced by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2023, allows media companies to negotiate prices directly with social media companies about the use of their work. One of the co-sponsors includes the late California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

If it were enacted, research from the University of Houston estimates Google would owe California newsrooms $1.4 billion annually, which outpaces the $300 million Google provides globally in grants and newsroom investments.

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