No more Google searching? Big tech and publishers reach for their guns

No more Google searching? Big tech and publishers reach for their guns

January 22, 2021

If the internet is the modern Wild West, Google has emerged as the tough town of Tombstone, and Facebook as Dodge City.

Google’s gunslingers have gone so far as threatening to send their own Australian search engine on a one-way trip to the Boot Hill graveyard if the Australian government doesn’t back down from an attempt to force them to pay up.

“It’s not a threat. It’s a reality,” said Google Australia’s managing director, Mel Silva, when asked about her declaration that if the government’s proposed laws went ahead, Google would disable its search function for all of Australia.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

In short, it is applying that old standby: blackmail. And Facebook is doing the same.

The government wants to make Google and Facebook pay for the news content they merrily extract for free from Australian news publishers such as Nine (owner of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald), News Corp, Guardian Australia, the ABC and all the rest.

Facebook says if the government was given the whip hand under current proposals, it would make sure all its 17 million Australian users were prevented from sharing any form of Australian news reports on their posts.

Google went full rogue and declared, eye-poppingly, that it would close access to its search engine to all Australians.

Type in a query, and you’d get a message telling you to rack off, or words to that effect.

Of course, these measures were no more than a “worst-case scenario”, the representatives of both Google and Facebook tried to reassure inquisitors on a Senate inquiry, part of which, rather deliciously, was run virtually, via the internet.

Why, they would love to strike a deal with Australian publishers, they said. It was just that the Australian government’s legislation forcing them to do so was not acceptable.

And blackmail? Not a bit of it, the people from Google and Facebook insisted.

Side by side, they gunned together: News Corp’s Campbell Reid (left), AAP’s Emma Cowdroy and Nine’s Chris Janz during Friday’s Senate hearing.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“It’s not a threat. It’s a reality,” said Google Australia’s managing director, Mel Silva, when asked about her declaration that if the government’s proposed laws went ahead, Google would disable its search function for all of Australia.

And Facebook’s vice-president of public policy (Asia-Pacific), Simon Milner, said his company was not making threats, but was simply explaining the “potential consequences” of the government’s decision making.

And yet, both representatives of these immensely powerful and wealthy tech companies dismissed the worth of Australian news content on their platforms as piffling.

Queries for news stories on Google amounted to about 1.25 per cent of total searches in Australia, Ms Silva informed the Senate committee.

News content made up less than 5 per cent of material viewed by the average Facebook user, said Mr Milner, and revenue was next to nothing.

Regardless, both agreed their business models would be in grievous danger if the Australian government set the rules on paying publishers for news content and mandatory methods of arbitration.

This fascinating exercise in creative argument raised eyebrows among senators on the inquiry, who were unkind enough to suggest it was really all about Google and Facebook fearing that Australian legislation could become a precedent, leading to governments around the world deciding to tighten the screws.

The attitude of the tech giants, and the thirst for a more level playing field in a digital advertising market massively skewed towards Google and Facebook, had the unusual side-effect of uniting rival media companies News Corp, Nine Entertainment and Guardian Australia, with the ABC, SBS, Free TV Australia, news agency AAP, and the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, all joining in.

Side by side, they gunned together, rather like Wyatt Earp and his brothers and sidekicks gathering at the OK Corral in Tombstone.

We’ll bring you the outcome of this gunfight in due course. You’ll know what’s happened if you dial up Google and discover a message telling you to rack off, or words to that effect.

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