It's Google and Facebook v. The Lucky Country

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Jan 22, 2021

via Flickr © rubberducky_me (CC BY-ND 2.0)

via Flickr © rubberducky_me (CC BY-ND 2.0)

  • Google and Facebook threaten to cut Australians' access to their platforms
  • Google won't pay for news content shared on its platform. Facebook will prevent sharing
  • Australian Government not impressed or intimidated
  • More evidence that Big Tech is running scared of the trend towards meaningful regulation

Google has made an explicit threat to the Australian government, at a Senate hearing no less, that it will make its search engine "unavailable" in the country if legislation forcing it and its ilk to pay for journalism and news stories shared on their platforms becomes law. A few hours ago, in course of a video link to the hearing, Melanie Silva, the managing director of Google Australia and New Zealand, said the company would cut primary search abilities for Australian users and walk away from AU$4 billion in advertising revenues if the proposed "News Media Bargaining Code" makes it to the Statute Book.

Later, Facebook made a similar threat, saying it would follow Google's lead and prevent Australian users from sharing news on its platform. The threats are more prima facie evidence that Google, Facebook and others are running scared of changes being forced upon their intrusive and exploitative business models and worries that the regional proposals to curtail their power will evolve into a global movement that will see them properly regulated and policed.

In response, Scott Morrison, the pugnacious Australian Prime Minister, was as robust as might be expected. He said, "Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia. That’s done in our Parliament. It’s done by our government, and that’s how things work here in Australia. People who want to work with that, in Australia, you’re very welcome. But we don’t respond to threats." 

Furthermore, the Australian people jealously guard their independence and threats from monopoly surveillance capitalism companies are likely to unite the entire country in condemnation and vituperation. The Aussies are not shy of letting fly when they feel they are being done down and they won't hold back when threatened or bullied, even though Google and Facebook are "The Internet" as far as the bulk of the population are concerned.

The Australian competition authority has just completed a year-long investigation into Big Tech and one of the conclusions is that news organisations undoubtedly add value to social media platforms and therefore Google etc. should pay for the content carried as bait to put adverts in front of Aussie eyeballs. Hence the legislation that went before the House of Representatives in December, 2020. It is a harbinger of growing efforts by governments and regulatory authorities all around the world to clip the wings of Big Tech companies that have grown far too big for their boots, (if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor).

As Senatorial hackles rose and one committee member fulminated about "attempted blackmail", Ms Silva backtracked a little and said that the threat she had just issued was not a threat at all, but a "potential worse case scenario" that could come to pass if the proposal become law because it would "break" Google's business model as paying news outlets originating news stories will "undermine the concept of a free and open Internet". 

She added that, anyway, searches for news stories by Australian users of Google account for a mere 1.25 per cent of all searches on the platform and have no real commercial value, thus making a point that well and truly holed her argument below the waterline. She didn't seem to notice.

As tempers frayed and questioning became increasingly hostile and pointed Ms Silva finally admitted that Google is worried that the Australian code will set an international precedent. And with that, the nub of the arguments, objections and threats was laid bare.

This is not really about having to pay for news content, Google has the deepest of deep pockets, has already done a deal to pay French news sites and publications for their content and it is expected that other such agreements with other EU states will surely follow. Meanwhile, in a move revealing the iron fist in the chain mail gauntlet, as part of what it describes as "an experiment" Google has taken to hiding big Australian news sites so deep in search results that they are almost impossible to find.

The company says this is "coincidental" and nothing to do with its spat with the Australian government.Hmm. Let us not forget that until a couple of weeks ago various Big Tech companies were prepared and willing to secrete and even erase established and trusted sources of information (both political and to do with the Covid-19 pandemic) from their sites even as they refused to do the same to prevent the spread of misinformation and the fostering of hatred and extremism.

"Get your hands off my algorithms!"

No, Google isn't worried about paying for journalism and thus keeping hard pressed local and regional publishing and a traditional advertising ecosystem up and running, it's about retaining and continuing to exploit, monetise and expand monopoly power and assuring that nothing gets in the way of those objectives. Of every $100 spent on on-site digital advertising, Google and Facebook now get $92.

The claims that new regulation would result in Google facing "unmanageable levels of financial and operational risk" ring hollow because they are hollow and untrue. What's really worrying Google (apart from existential angst at the thought of facing meaningful regulation) is that the new law would compel it to give news companies and organisations two weeks notice of any changes being made to algorithms. That is complete anathema to Big Tech.

Both Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf, major influencers both, have come out against the Australian proposal with Sir Tim saying, "The code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online. The ability to link freely, meaning without limitations regarding the content of the linked site and without monetary fees, is fundamental to how the web operates". 

Fair enough, but Sir Tim seems to be harking back to the "free and open" World Wide Web as it was shortly after he invented it, not as it is now, in thrall to monopolistic behemoths that are very lightly regulated, where they are regulated at all, and are determined to keep things that way whilst avoiding paying tax whenever and wherever they can. 

However, the earth is moving under them. Freebooting, altruistic teenage "Don't be Evil" organisations have matured into grasping multinational Internet corporations that are fully prepared  to play poker with national western governments and will continue to bluster, prevaricate and threaten until their bluffs are called. Australia might just be the country to do it. 

Let's end with a quote from a very funny 1997 Australian film, "The Castle", in which a blue-collar Melbourne family take on the powers-that-be when they learn their home will be demolished to make way for a runway extension. They want a "fair go" and duly get as far as the Federal Court.

Judge: "On what law are you basing your argument".

Darryl Kerrigan (family patriarch): "The Law of bloody common sense!". 

He wins. So should the Australian government.

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