- - Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Google, Facebook and Amazon — a triumvirate the media tend to exalt — have been engaged in some questionable practices that have received relatively little news coverage, even though they were significant events that came to light during the slow summer news period.

Google, the company whose motto used to be “Do no evil,” has buckled under pressure from the European Union to remove news articles from the search engine.

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in May that all search engines must allow individuals to request material concerning them be eliminated, known as the “right to be forgotten.” Google has reportedly received 70,000 requests under the ruling, including demands to remove news articles that ran in outlets such as the BBC and the Guardian websites.

The BBC articles described how former Merrill Lynch CEO E. Stanley O’Neal was ousted after the investment bank lost billions of dollars. A Guardian article claimed that a soccer referee reportedly lied about reversing a penalty decision. Both news organizations protested the Google moves, but only the Guardian link has been restored.

In another important news story, Facebook quietly collaborated with Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco in a 2012 study that targeted almost 700,000 users, manipulating the news feed feature in an attempt to see how positive and negative news affected the mood of users. Adam Kramer of Facebook, who co-authored the report on the research, said, “We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post … content leads to people feeling negative or left out.” He acknowledged when the story broke that the company did not “clearly state our motivations.”

Late last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed an official complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, arguing that Facebook had violated ethical standards that govern experiments on human subjects. The group wants the company to pay damages and to hand over the computer program that helped to manipulate the news feeds. British officials also plan to investigate the methods used in the study. Facebook already faces a class-action lawsuit in California that the company takes private messages and scans them for potential advertising purposes.

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And last, Amazon is fighting an ongoing battle with the fourth-largest U.S. publisher, Hachette Book Group, over the cost of electronic books. In an apparent move to split authors from the publisher, Amazon made an offer this week to Hachette writers, giving them an opportunity to collect all of the revenues on their e-books.

During the two-month-old dispute, Amazon has also restricted preorders on a variety of Hachette authors, who include some notable names such as J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Scott Turow.

Mr. Turow, the former head of the Authors Guild and a Hachette writer, joined forces with a variety of top authors against the Amazon proposal. (Full disclosure: The writer is a member of the Authors Guild.)

“To some extent the publishers have brought this on themselves by not sharing appropriately with authors. There are much fatter profits on e-books than on physical ones and that has drawn Amazon like bees to the honey,” Mr. Turow told The Washington Post. “Giving more to Amazon is not the solution.”

Amazon has defended its actions, saying the dispute is simply a business negotiation. “Suppliers get to decide the terms under which they are willing to sell to a retailer,” it said on its website. “It’s reciprocally the right of a retailer to determine whether the terms on offer are acceptable and to stock items accordingly.”

Whatever the case, it was difficult to find much coverage about the controversies stirred up by these three media giants. These are important stories that affect what people read online or electronically and what happens to the information they post online, and they all deserved more thorough treatment from our journalistic watchdogs.

Christopher Harper teaches journalism at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] and on Twitter @charper51.

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