SYDNEY, Australia – In a major escalation on Friday, Google threatened to make its search engine unavailable in Australia if the government passed legislation that would force tech companies to pay for journalism shared on their platforms.
Facebook, which appeared at an Australian Senate hearing with Google, reiterated a threat of its own, pledging to prevent users in Australia from posting or sharing links to messages when the bill passes.
In both cases, dire warnings, which one senator labeled extortion, demonstrated the apparent willingness of Facebook and Google to hide or delete reliable sources of information for millions of people when social media platforms are under attack to spread the word around the world Support misinformation.
The companies argue that they are already helping the media industry by sending traffic and that the bill would open them up to “unmanageable financial and operational risks”. The reaction from Google, which controls 95 percent of all inquiries in Australia in addition to owning YouTube, has become particularly aggressive: The company recently buried large Australian news sites in search results in a so-called “experiment”.
But the precedent of paying for journalism doesn’t seem to be the problem in and of itself.
A few hours before Google threatened to steal its search engine in Australia, the company agreed to pay for news publications in France under an agreement that is likely to result in more deals across Europe.
The battle in Australia is about power: who decides on payments, what causes tech companies to charge, and when to disclose changes in their algorithms.
Australia’s confident challenge to social media giants has made it the avant-garde movement to bolster a traditional news media ecosystem that is threatening America’s trillion-dollar tech company with extinction. For Google and Facebook, their intense backlash has become a focus of their global efforts to curtail regulation as governments around the world seek to contain it.
Here is a recap of the fight.
Quick or long negotiations
Under Australian law, an independent arbitration board will resolve the dispute if media companies and platforms like Google cannot agree on a price for news content. That could be a world first.
The agreement in France allows Google to negotiate with publishers based on criteria that the company has established, such as: B. the contribution to the general discussion, the volume of publications and the size of the audience. Disputes would most likely go to court, where they could be stuck for years and delay payment.
Australia’s bill would streamline the process and empower the weaker side – the media.
Rod Sims, Chairman of the Australian Consumer Protection Agency, said: “The aim of the Code is to address the unequal bargaining position between Australian news media companies and the major digital platforms with clear market power.”
The tech companies say this would create an incentive for media companies to raise prices and send cases to an arbitrator who will set the final payment. They point to a government report that estimates that 75 percent of negotiations could end with arbitrators.
Critics argue that Google and Facebook are merely trying to assert their position as the ones who can determine what news is worth.
“The point is that the external process is imposed on them by law, not just being able to deal out business as they see fit,” said Peter Lewis, director of the Responsible Technology Center at the Australia Institute, an independent research group. “It shifts the balance of power from your hands to a third party, and you can’t stand that.”
Links vs. previews
The battle is centered in part on a debate about the nature of search results and whether tech companies should pay for every item Australians see on their platforms.
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Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote in an investigation by the Australian Senate of the proposal: “The code could violate a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking certain online content.”
“The ability to freely link,” he added, “that is, with no restrictions on the content of the linked website and no financial fees, is fundamental to the functioning of the web.”
Melanie Silva, the executive director of Google Australia and New Zealand, argued in the Senate and in a video posted on Twitter on Friday asking people to introduce themselves, recommend a couple of cafes to a friend – and then get a bill from that Cafes for sharing this information.
“If you set a price for linking to certain information, you are breaking the way search engines work,” she said. “And you no longer have a free and open web.”
However, Google and Facebook (along with Twitter and others) don’t simply link. They frame the work in previews with headings, summaries, and photos, and curate and serve the content while sprinkling in advertising.
Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University in Perth, noted in a recent paper that this added value reduces the likelihood of someone clicking the article, hurting media companies, while improving the bottom line of tech companies.
“Ads are showing up a lot in this makeover, and that’s where these platforms make money,” he wrote. He added that the code could be customized so that companies only charge for creating previews, not just links.
But Mr. Sims, the chief architect of the code, said in the Senate Friday that Google and Mr. Berners-Lee were just wrong on the details.
“The code doesn’t require Google and Facebook to pay for linking news content,” he said. “Indeed, the discussions we are familiar with have focused on paying lump sums up front, not per click.”
In a broader sense, lawmakers and public order experts have argued that companies don’t just share information like a friend. They collect details about their users in order to make what they share profitable.
As Mr. Lewis of the Australia Institute put it, not only do they give you information about where to get coffee – they follow you to the cafe, watch what you order and where you go next, and then sell that knowledge to companies, who want it to market you something else.
Senator Rex Patrick accused Google of being concerned about “technical primacy”. In fact, he said, it’s all about “commercial primacy” – money.
Google Australia raised approximately $ 3.3 billion from Australian advertisers and paid approximately $ 77 million in taxes in 2019, with reported earnings of approximately $ 637 million.
Secret algorithms vs. transparency
A potentially groundbreaking element of the proposed legislation is the secret sauce of Facebook, Google, and affiliates like YouTube: the algorithms that determine what people see when they browse or scroll through the platforms.
Early draft legislation would have required tech companies to give their media partners 28 days notice before making changes that would affect how users interact with their content.
Google and Facebook said this was impossible as their algorithms are constantly changing in ways that are difficult for a subset like News to measure. Therefore, the legislators have restricted the scope in the latest draft.
If the bill is in one form or another, which is likely, the digital platforms will need to give the media 14 days notice of intentional changes to the algorithm that will have a significant impact on their business. Even that, some critics argue, is not enough for Big Tech.
“I think Google and Facebook are seriously concerned that other countries will join Australia’s efforts,” said Johan Lidberg, professor of media at Monash University in Melbourne. “This could ultimately lead to a significant loss of revenue worldwide and a serious loss of control, such as the problem with the algorithm.”
But, he added, using threats to harass lawmakers would do them no good.
“Google’s overreaction perfectly shows why the code is needed,” he said, “and beyond that, all governments around the world urgently need to make efforts to contain and curb the power of these completely out of hand companies.” Hand.”