The New Gatekeepers

Google’s new hands-off approach to AMP fails to satisfy its critics

September 28, 2018
Robert Scoble, via Flickr.

Unless you’re a web geek, you might not be that familiar with Google AMP. Short for “Accelerated Mobile Pages,” it’s a webpage standard developed by Google to speed up load-time on mobile devices by stripping out a lot of the bits (including a lot of advertising gimmicks) that tend to clog things up.

At first blush, it sounds like a great idea. But media companies have complained that Google controls the standard, which feeds into their larger concern about how much influence the web giant has, especially over digital advertising. Among other things, the AMP standard restricts what types of ads a media company can include on their mobile pages, and how they can be implemented.

Given all that, there was muted relief when Google said earlier this month that it is moving AMP to an “open governance” model, meaning it will theoretically no longer be in sole control of how the project works. The company said it wants to bring “a wider variety of voices” into the project, meaning input from media partners who will become members of a technical steering committee and working groups devoted to the various aspects of the standard.

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Despite this apparent attempt at outreach, some scoffed at the move, calling it cosmetic. AMP has always been open source, which means that theoretically anyone can contribute to the standard, the way they can with Linux or any other open-source project. But realistically, Google, as AMP’s “maintainer” or project lead, has always been in control of what gets accepted and what doesn’t—and it has likely made some of those decisions in its own corporate interests.

Even AMP’s “open source” status was seen as a competitive play with  Facebook’s Instant Articles format, rolled out to certain media partners in 2015.

While many developers and media executives said the open source nature made AMP somewhat better than having to buy into a completely Facebook-controlled ecosystem with Instant Articles, some were nervous about how much control Google had over the outcome. A number of anonymous programmers wrote an open letter to Google complaining that AMP was a kind of Trojan horse, designed to look like an open project but ultimately aimed at consolidating Google’s hegemony over the web, and that the search giant was essentially trying to create its own custom version of HTML, the display language that powers the web. It seemed perverse to some that Google was the one promoting AMP as the cure to all of the web’s slow-loading problems, when a big part of that problem was a result of ads from Google’s own advertising networks, like DoubleClick.

It didn’t help when the company started to give AMP pages priority placement in the Google “carousel” of recommended search results in 2016. Google’s Vice President of News, Richard Gingras, made sure to note that Google was giving preference to faster-loading pages, and AMP pages just happened to be the fastest (not surprising, since in most cases they were hosted on Google’s servers). This reinforced the idea that AMP was something publishers had to do if they wanted to show up high in Google’s results, even if running AMP pages didn’t translate into higher revenues. In effect, it seemed like a threat: Nice website you got there, hate to see it get bad traffic.

Over time, many publishers adopted the standard, to benefit from Google traffic. So why is Google now moving to an open governance model? The company says it wants to broaden the level of outside participation, which could be an admission that not enough outlets were signing up to help (although Google says 700 people have made changes). But it could also be a sign the company has lost interest in controlling AMP, now that Instant Articles seems to have fallen by the wayside. Facebook is no longer devoting much to it in the way of resources, and most of the original partners have stopped using it, according to a survey earlier this year by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia. AMP basically won, so there’s less at stake for Google.

One programmer who works for a major media outlet, and has been involved with AMP from the beginning, says open governance won’t change the most important aspect of the standard, which is that Google gets to decide which version of mobile pages will get higher placement in its results. “In my opinion this change is largely irrelevant,” the programmer said, “because Google decides what version of the standard gets cached by their system and funnelled on to search pages which means they will always be able to exercise control over the standard. Sure, you can commit changes and close pull requests, but if Google decides not to support the change you’ve made, you might as well not have bothered.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.