Who pays for us to browse the web? Be wary of Google’s latest answer

Evgeny Morozov writes: Google has quietly launched a new service, Google Contributor, and it’s based on an intriguing proposition: for a small monthly fee, you won’t see any ads on the websites of its partners. The fee, naturally, is split between Google and those sites – but only if they are actually visited. As Google puts it, this is all “an experiment in additional ways to fund the web”.

The experiment isn’t revolutionary. Wikipedia, with its ideological opposition to advertising, heavily relies on donations from readers. Premium members of Reddit, another popular site, could pay a fee and skip the ads. Google’s own YouTube channel has begun offering its paying customers an ad-free version – at a fee, of course. The fans can now also send money to their favourite artists.

Given that advertising remains Google’s main source of revenue, the new service has befuddled many analysts. Could Google really be worried about its future? It has had an amazing decade. But how long this financial bonanza will last is anyone’s guess; from an advertising viewpoint, browsing on smartphones is not as profitable. Besides, ad blockers – clever browser extensions for blocking intrusive ads – already allow users to cleanse their browsers of any unwanted clutter.

Google Contributor is certainly a clever publicity ploy. Giving publishers a simple tool to raise money can create some goodwill – which is exactly what Google needs as its advertising-based model gets hammered by Europe’s publishing industry. In France, Google has already had to open its coffers and promise French publishers to invest millions in new journalistic ventures. In the end, it’s becoming harder to accuse Google of destroying the media industry: the company can always turn the tables and accuse publishers of being too slow to embrace change.

More importantly, Google Contributor is probably part of Google’s delicate repositioning in the wake of the post-Snowden backlash. Advertising – rather than the messy entanglement between institutions of the deep state and those of digital hypercapitalism – has emerged as everyone’s favourite scapegoat. And more: we are assured that a world free of advertising could help us cash all those expired and bouncing cheques of the once-defunct cyber-utopian enterprise! [Continue reading…]

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