The Battle Down Under: Google threatens to withdraw from Australia

February 18, 2021


2 min read

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What's going on here?

Google has threatened to remove their search engine from Australia if new legislation is passed.

What does this mean?

The proposed legislation would require technology companies to negotiate payments with broadcasters and publishers for any publications or stories included in search results or news feeds. Importantly, in the event of negotiations failing, an appointed and independent arbitrator will resolve the case.

Mel Silva, Google’s Australia Managing Director, threatened that there would be “no real choice” but to remove Google’s search engine if the code passes into legislation. This was not received well by the Australian government, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison refusing to yield to “threats”.

What's the big picture effect?

At first glance, the argument against the legislation reads convincingly. Facebook representatives explained that news articles only make up 5% of the users’ feed, the implication being that Facebook’s commercial profit from news articles is insignificant. Google argues that this legislation would go against the principle of the ‘open web’ where anything can be linked. Moreover, why should Google be punished for providing media agencies with viewership? After all, clicking the link will send the user to the original article.

This misses the point of the legislation according to the committee’s chair. By implementing an independent arbiter, media companies will have a level-playing field during commercial negotiations. The recent French commercial agreement, to pay French media companies for their articles, upheld by Google as a viable alternative, is problematic. The criteria for the negotiations was set by Google. Moreover, it is difficult to see how French media companies could reject the offer unless they prefer a trip to the courts – a long and expensive solution. 

The committee also argues that the idea of a free and open internet is a decades-old representation. A few Big Tech companies, with their pervasive algorithms, now dominate. Finally, Big Tech does not simply ‘redirect’ or ‘link’ users to news sites. They frame the article with previews, summaries, photos, and headlines. According to Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University Perth, this makes it far less likely that the reader will proceed to the original news source.

It is no secret that the news industry has taken a significant hit in the last decade. For example, the Australian print industry alone has lost 75% of its advertising revenue since 2005. On a surface level, then, this clash is about protecting diverse media in the era of Big Tech. More importantly, this story is another example of governments’ attempt to rein in Big Tech. The EU and America will be watching closely, as will Microsoft (Bing, anyone?).

Report written by Andri Boda

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