On Sunday, the Financial Times broke the news that Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. were cooking up a plan in which Microsoft would pay News Corp to "delist" its media properties from Google. Today, Bloomberg reports that a couple of other publishers, MediaNews (publisher of the Denver Post, among many other papers,) and A.H. Belo Corp., (publisher of the Dallas Morning News), were also considering "blocking" Google and putting up paywalls, although payments from Microsoft to those organizations were not mentioned.
If Rupert Murdoch can get enough cash from Microsoft to compensate for what his media properties would lose in advertising dollars by cutting off the flow of Google-directed traffic, then maybe the deal makes business sense for him. But it seems to me that the move would also be a bonanza for any major news organization that does not close off its content to Google -- like, say, Bloomberg, or Reuters, or the New York Times.
Because for a plan like this to work, real scarcity must be created. As information consumers, people like me would go to Google, search for something, not find it, and then go to Bing. Or, ideally, from the newspaper industry point of view, we would sign up for paid access. But there's no way this can be pulled off if just a few major publishers ask Google to stop indexing their sites. It will require a preponderance. Maybe Microsoft has enough cash to pay the entire media industry to pull out of Google, but I somehow doubt it.
For the plan to work, it will also require that the vast, endlessly proliferating ecology of Internet filters, such as the millions of bloggers or tweeters or Facebook posters who recommend or summarize news stories, are eradicated from the Net. When searching for news, I'd rather find the original Associated Press article breaking a story, but in a pinch I will settle for a summary. The pathways in which information flows on the Internet are near infinite, and until now, have always been expanding in size and scope. I have paid subscriptions to the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, but I rarely have time to sit down and devour the daily publications from "front" to "back." I depend on a network of my own Internet filters to tell me what is important or newsworthy -- without them, there is simply too much out there for me to comprehend or absorb.
Microsoft and News Corp want to solve my information overload problem by cutting off the firehose. This reminds one of nothing so much as King Canute attempting to turn back the tide (and yes, I know, he was really just trying to demonstrate God's infinite power as opposed to his puny mortal abilities). In other words, for Bing to dethrone Google or News Corp. to reverse the trend of declining newspaper circulation requires the outright reversal of history. Since at least the mid-'90s, the end users and consumers of information have lived in an environment where every single day offered us more -- more choices, more information, more content of all kinds. Let us recall, newspapers didn't make their content freely available on the Web because they were forced to by Google or anyone else -- they did it because anyone with a brain could see that's where the readers were going. We led -- they followed! They had no choice if they wanted to remain relevant. Readers now have such a bewildering infinity of choices upon which to devote their attention spans that one has to offer a really, really compelling service to make them pay for something.
Perhaps a duel between Google and Microsoft, in which both offer escalating sums of money to newspapers in a grab for searchable content, will be good for publishers, and make up for the decline in classified revenues and the broken monopolies on physical-location-based news provision. But fundamentally, what Microsoft and all the other newspapers looking to retreat from the free Web are banking on is that they can profit by reducing our access to information. Good luck with that.