Were The Google News Outages Really Outages?

A service outage last week took out the 5 percent chunk of Internet traffic that Google represents, according to security vendor Arbor Networks. On Monday, another outage, this one affecting only Google News, rendered the Web site inaccessible for nearly two hours.

Although difficult to quantify, it's safe to say that both incidents significantly slowed the amount of daily traffic that Google News drives to news Web sites that display AP content.

At first glance, the outages are an embarrassment for Google and a major dent to its reputation as a keystone of Web infrastructure. But in light of the Associated Press' recent vow to take legal action against Web sites that use its work without permission, and content providers' long-held view that they're entitled to a cut of the revenue that Google gets from selling ads against search terms, it's worth considering if the outages may have been "accidents" of a convenient sort.

Granted, this is tinfoil hat territory, and would certainly be proscribed behavior for a company that flies the "Don't Be Evil" flag, but if Google decided to pick the busiest time of the day for Web traffic in the U.S. to tinker with the Google News page design, it would send a powerful message to the AP, Rupert Murdoch, and other brooding content providers. That message that would sound something like: "How you like me now?"

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The AP and Google have been debating the issue of compensation and fair use for years, and in 2006 entered a licensing agreement aimed at settling the issue. But as Google's profile in the news industry continues to grow, the AP and other content providers are demanding that Google share a greater portion of the pie. AP CEO Tom Curley laid down the law last month in an interview with Forbes when he said: "They will not get our copy going forward."

As part of its renewed offensive against Google, the AP is leading an industrywide online content protection effort that will include coaxing portals and other partners to sign content licensing agreements, and siccing lawyers on those that refuse. The AP is also looking into creating its own search landing pages to display its content.

"We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories," AP Chairman Dean Singleton said at AP's annual meeting in San Diego last month.

Google, for its part, expressed contrition over last week's outage, although it's not difficult to imagine that there may also have been some snickering behind the scenes. Urs Hoelzle, Google's senior vice president of operations, said last week's outage stemmed from a routing error that interrupted service for about 14 percent of the search giant's users.

"We're very sorry that it happened, and you can be sure that we'll be working even harder to make sure that a similar problem won't happen again," Hoelzle wrote last week in a blog post.