Friday, October 20, 2006

Google News: Good for Democracy?

A News.com op-ed rips Google over its Google News service in light of the successful lawsuit by Belgian news publishers, which even forced Google to post the ruling on its Belgium homepage (good summary of the affair by SearchEngineWatch here). The op-ed calls Google "immoral" for free-riding on the work of others and blasts the whole Web 2.0 thing.

Again, there should be no problem with linking to material that is freely accessible online. Unless I restrict access to what I put online, it is proper to think of me as having given everyone else an implied license to link to and use my material, up to a point. Plagiarism and full copies are right out, but headlines have yet to be fully recognized by copyright law, as with ledes, so I have few problems with the behavior of Google News. If it infringes copyright, so does just about every blog. TechDirt responds similarly to the article.

One argument that always arises in defending Google is that its News site boosts the traffic of the articles it links to, but here's another: the benefit of users being confronted with unexpected and varying viewpoints.

I have recently read Cass Sunstein's Republic.com, which fears that too much choice online is bad for democracy as people can filter their experiences as they wish and that niche sites will lead to group polarization, calling for affirmative steps to be taken to encourage democratic deliberation online. Dan Hunter has highlighted several problems with Sunstein's argument (disclosure: Hunter is my Prof. for Cyberlaw right now), but the desire for people to be confronted with views they ordinarily wouldn't encounter is addressed by Google News.

The reason to read Google News is that Google links to several sites for each story it covers, giving me a quick roundup of the various views on any given topic. I could be given links to as diverse sources as CNN, FOX News, and the Guardian. As such, this particular application of linking to copyrighted material without permission (making the outlandish assumption that it truly is infringement) addresses important social needs that don't appear to be satisfied elsewhere in the market. While we may disagree as to the prevalence of group polarization online (which Sunstein sees as rampant), Google News seems to offer an ideal check to fringe echo chambers. And copyright is supposed to supplement democracy, not detract from it, right?
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