Faced with new legislation in Australia that would force it to pay for news stories it now scrapes for free, Google says it could pull its search engine from the country.
“Google is committed to achieving a workable News Media Bargaining Code,” Google vice president Mel Silva said in an appearance at a public hearing of the Australian Senate Committee that is reviewing the proposed new law. “In its current form, the Code remains unworkable and if it became law would hurt not just Google, but small publishers, small businesses, and the millions of Australians that use our services every day. There is a way forward that allows Google to pay publishers for value, without breaking Google Search and our business in Australia.”
Under the terms of the proposed law, social media companies would need to agree on the price of using content with the media companies that create it. If they cannot agree, a governmental arbitration board will determine the price for them, a move that would clearly benefit the content creators and not the content stealers.
“The aim of the code is to address the uneven bargaining position between Australian news media businesses and the big digital platforms who have clear market power,” Australian consumer protection regulator Rod Sims said.
Not surprisingly, Facebook also opposes the new law and says that it will retaliate if it’s passed by preventing users in that country from posting or sharing links to news items. A representative of Facebook also appeared at the Senate Committee hearing.
Australia’s response to the threats is, perhaps, predictable: At least one senator described both as blackmail. But in an interesting twist, Google this week reached a precedent-setting agreement in France that will let it negotiate prices with content creators in that country. If there’s a dispute, it would head to court in a years-long process that Australia, for its part, is trying to avoid because it plays into the needs of Big Tech.
Interestingly, Australia’s attempt to protect the country’s businesses is coming under fire from those who would normally not back Google, Facebook, or their ilk. For example, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote the Australia Senate Committee to oppose the code, noting that it “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.”
The problem, of course, is that Google and Facebook aren’t just linking. Each republishes content owned by others on their own platforms, accompanied by ads that pay them, and not the original content creators. But what Australia is really seeking here is not an end to linking, but rather a requirement that these companies only link to the original sources, and not republish content and earn money from advertising around it. If these companies want to republish content, they should pay for that right.
“Google’s overreaction perfectly illustrates why the code is needed,” Monash University professor Johan Lidber told The New York Times. “And beyond that, the dire need for all governments, across the globe, to join in efforts in reining in and limiting the power of these companies that is completely out of hand.”
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