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This may be the year that content creators finally fight back against surveillance capitalism. Over the past few weeks, there have been multiple lawsuits filed by news providers large and small, as well as comedians, authors and other creative professionals who allege that their work is being unfairly used to create the artificial intelligence that threatens eventually to put them out of business.
One of the highest profile suits was filed by the New York Times, in which the newspaper behemoth accused both OpenAI and its owner Microsoft of unlawfully using millions of pieces of journalistic content to train large language models — the very creations that may ultimately replace the search traffic that is monetised by both tech platforms and publishers.
So the problem is two-fold. Not only are publishers and content creators not getting paid fairly for the content used to train these models, but AI is also poised to seriously disrupt the business by which consumers search for information online. It could make the previous 20 years of Big Tech’s rapacious rent extraction from content creators look minor by comparison.
Right now, when people use a search engine to obtain information, they are shown results that may lead them to the websites of creators. The creators can then make money from the traffic through digital advertising. It’s a symbiotic relationship — which is not to say it’s equal. Ever since Google pioneered the business model of selling ads against search back in 2000, content creators have been more or less at the mercy of whatever revenue-sharing terms Big Tech wanted to offer, if indeed it offered any at all.
That started to change a couple of years ago, when Australia, followed by Canada, forced tech platforms to negotiate payments with publishers. That’s better than nothing, but the fees have amounted to a fraction of what many experts say is fair value.
One recent study by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Houston and the Brattle Group consulting firm quantified the shortfall. They estimated that if Google gave US publishers 50 per cent of the value created by their news content, they’d be shelling out between $10-12bn annually. As it is, the New York Times — one of the largest news publishers — is getting a mere $100mn over three years.
Now, AI is poised to make even that asymmetric relationship look good. When you ask a chatbot such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT or Google’s Bard a question, you don’t get sent to a creator’s website. Rather, you are given the answer directly. Users remain in the walled garden of whichever Big Tech company owns the artificial intelligence platform. The fact that the AI has been trained on the very same copyrighted content it aims to bypass adds insult to injury.
It is not only traditional content creators who are worried. Brands are now creating their own virtual social media influencers with AI, so they don’t have to pay the $1,000 or so per post that some real influencers charge. The Hollywood actors and writers strikes last year were also about this race to the bottom, in which more and more creative, white-collar jobs will be done by software.
It’s the ultimate and perhaps inevitable inversion of the starting point of the world wide web, which was all about helping users easily find and navigate the multitude of original web pages that sprang up as the internet went mainstream. As Google co-founder Larry Page told an interviewer in 2004, “we want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible”.
But as Google and other tech platforms grew, the goal became keeping you in — by cutting exclusive deals with other companies such as Apple and Samsung to be their search provider of choice. They also acquired companies in areas such as digital advertising, mobile operation systems, social media and so on, to ring fence more and more of the online territory and keep users on the platform.
This is how Google came to dominate search, which was of course itself dependent on being able to appropriate copyrighted content.
In some ways, AI disrupts that model. It is, after all Microsoft’s OpenAI, not Google’s Bard, that is the dominant player thus far. But in another way, AI is just another beat — perhaps the final one — in the process of surveillance capitalism. This is all about mining user data and attention and selling it back to us in ways that create lower and lower input costs and higher and higher profit margins for platforms.
Indeed, one recent lawsuit filed by the Arkansas news organisation Helena World Chronicle in a class action against Google and Alphabet argues that the “unlawful tying” arrangements, in which the search giant misappropriates publishers’ content and republishes it on its platform, are “only extended and exacerbated by Google’s introduction of Bard in 2023” — since the chatbot trained on content from publishers from the Helena World Chronicle to the Washington Post, none of whom were compensated.
Whether or not chatbots end up killing search, there is no question who the winners are in this latest iteration of surveillance capitalism: Big Tech companies. Here’s hoping they have to pay more for what they’ve taken.
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