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Google has joined calls for antitrust laws to be relaxed, to allow local newspapers to merge to help them compete with, er, Google.

In a submission to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which is reviewing media ownership rules, the dominant search firm said local rags now faced competition from the web, not just other local rags. Classified advertising has quickly migrated online to Google and other services, leaving newsrooms without proper funding for journalism.

The major publishing groups - such as Newsquest and Johnston Press - have argued that laws brought in to maintain diversity in local media ownership are no longer relevant, and actually threaten the future of many titles.

Google, which is facing increasing pressure on its near-monopoly position from regulators on both sides of the Atlantic, backed that view.

Matt Brittin, its UK managing director and a former executive at struggling newspaper group Trinity Mirror, told the OFT: "Given the increased access to local and regional news and information for users, and the increased advertising offerings for local businesses, traditional 'market' definitions have become less relevant.

"Google supports the position of many newspapers for the need to allow for a 21st century merger regime, allowing local and regional news services to merge."

It's a logical move on Google's part, given its keenness to avoid close regulatory scrutiny of its online dominance. By supporting a relaxation of competition laws for old media, it appears to invite failing newspaper publishers to its online party. Of course, their survival will keep Google News fed with stories.

Brittin's letter spins that line to the OFT. "Google works closely with many newspapers to help them build an online audience and to assist them in making money from targeted online advertising," he wrote.

"We are always working to improve our technology so that online users see more relevant advertising, and consequently publishers can earn a greater return on their efforts."

Google and the newspaper publishers may have some regulatory convincing left to do, however. Last year the OFT blocked a planned consolidation of titles by Trinity Mirror in the Slough area. It did not consider the effect of the web in its decision, writing: "On the evidence available, it is or may be the case that the merger has resulted, or may be expected to result, in a substantial lessening of competition within... the supply of local weekly newspapers and advertising space in weekly local newspapers in Slough and Windsor."

Despite its not entirely altruistic motives, Google's backing for their merger plans was welcomed by embattled newspaper publishers today. Other recent Googley ideas for the future of news, such as its suggestion to make stories more like Wikipedia, have been less well received. ®

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