President Donald Trump has a complicated relationship with the media. Outside of Fox News, the president seems to believe that most, if not all, news organizations are biased against him and his administration. On Tuesday, though, Trump set his sights on Google (GOOG, GOOGL).
In an early-morning tweet, the president claimed that Google News only shows news from the “National Left-Wing Media;” suggested that doing so might be illegal; alleged that “Google and others” are “suppressing voices of Conservatives;” and asserted that the situation “will be addressed.”
But even if Trump’s claims were accurate, there’s little he could actually do to change what Google shows its users.
“Under current statutory and constitutional law, it is absolutely not illegal for a private media company like Google News to show only certain kinds of news—left-leaning, right-leaning, you name it,” Genevieve Lakier, an assistant law professor at the University of Chicago’s law school, told Yahoo Finance.
How Google News works
Google News is the search giant’s news aggregation page, which provides users with headlines and links to the day’s top stories. According to the company’s own explainer on how items are chosen for Google News, the majority of the headlines a user sees are selected via Google’s algorithms, which are based on your past usage history including via Google Search, YouTube and other properties, as well as subjects in which you’ve indicated your interest via the News app.
There are instances when humans curate stories within Google News, but they are relatively limited. Publishers, for example, can choose which stories appear in their respective sections of the Newstand portion of the Google News App. For instance, CNN can choose what it shows in the CNN section, while USA Today can choose what appears in the USA Today section.
Google’s editorial team can also add temporary topics for major events such as the Olympics or elections, and can add follow-up links to relevant search results. For example, Google says it could show a link to “How to register to vote,” under the Elections section. That, however, doesn’t mean Google has any bias as to what shows up in Google News.
Following Trump’s tweet, Google released the following statement:
“When users type queries into the Google Search bar, our goal is to make sure they receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds. Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology. Every year, we issue hundreds of improvements to our algorithms to ensure they surface high-quality content in response to users’ queries. We continually work to improve Google Search and we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment.”
Is it illegal to hide news stories?
But what if Google chose to discriminate against specific news sources or based on certain topics as Trump claims. Would doing so be illegal? Not according to two legal experts who spoke to Yahoo Finance.
“President Trump’s assertions are basically empty bluster,” explained University at Buffalo law professor Mark Bartholomew. “Google is a private business with a proprietary algorithm that determines the news stories its users see.”
He added: “There is little the government can do that would directly alter what news this business decides to highlight for its users. The First Amendment represents an enormous bulwark for Google against government intervention in this regard.”
Can Trump do anything to change this?
As Lakier points out, the First Amendment protects a person’s or company’s right to favor speakers based on their viewpoints. It would, however, be illegal for the government to favor one person, company or group’s viewpoints over another’s. But since Google is a private company and not a government entity, it is free to express any viewpoint it pleases.
“This means that even if the president were able to convince the Congress to enact a law prohibiting media companies from engaging in the kind of viewpoint discrimination he accused Google News of engaging in, that law would likely face an immediate First Amendment challenge—a First Amendment challenge I cannot see how it would win,” Lakier said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Trump administration has its hands tied. In fact, the Trump administration could target other parts of Google’s business to pressure the company into changing how it displays news stories about him.
“He could threaten antitrust enforcement against Google. He could try to encourage federal authorities to scrutinize more closely Google’s information tracking practices, possibly contending they run afoul of consumer protection laws,” Bartholomew explained.
“But these are indirect efforts. There’s little the president can do if he doesn’t like the news stories that come up on Google, just as there’s little he can do if he doesn’t like the stories written about him in The New York Times,” he added.
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