Australia May Lose Search If News Bargaining Legislation Passes

New legislation being debated in the Australian Senate brings about threats from digital platforms to remove news articles from social media feeds – and even the possibility of Google removing its search function from the country entirely.

Australia’s parliament is currently debating new digital legislation that would force digital platforms like Google and Facebook to negotiate with news media companies on payment for content. And the digital behemoths aren’t happy about it.

Today, Google released a statement saying it would not be viable to continue offering search in Australia if the new digital code goes ahead. The world’s top search engine had previously trialled removing news sites from search results in Australia, which caught users unaware earlier this month when they suddenly couldn’t find news within Google Search. Google claimed that this was just one of tens of thousands of trials in Australia conducted over the last year – since the legislation was first announced – but the recent trial demonstrated what the future might hold.


What Is the New Australian Legislation, the ‘News Bargaining Code’?

It’s no secret that social media, and digital technology more generally, has had a profound impact on the news industry. The problems didn’t start with social media and the rise of the internet, but they were certainly exacerbated and accelerated by them.

And the main problem is this: a mass fragmentation of all media. This so-called narrowcasting splinters audiences into specific interest groups that traditional news organisations, which are geared for distributing news to a larger cross-section of a population, simply can’t cater to. People end up turning to the smaller, specialised organisations for their news or media entertainment because it aligns more with their preferences and interests.

But there’s still a value to be gained by traditional and experienced news organisations. These organisations provide an important service in the democratic tradition: holding power to account, and ensuring citizens have the information they need to choose their leaders. A smaller, specific-interest publication simply can’t keep up, or fund the level of in-depth journalism that’s integral to democracy.

It’s with this in mind that the Australian Government has recently been compiling new legislation to support its news organisations and course correct. The Australian competition regulator views the current setup as a major market distortion, with Google and other digital platforms benefitting from news for free. The news bargaining code aims to force digital giants like Google and Facebook to negotiate a fair price for the use of news content.

The legislation is currently being debated in a Senate committee, which is also hearing final submissions from interested parties. And what they’re hearing from digital platforms is: the news bargaining code would be untenable. In fact, it could see the removal of services from Australia – including Google Search.


Google Threatens to Remove Google Search from Australia

According to Google’s Australian managing director, Mel Silva, the news bargaining code would set a “dangerous precedent” for paying for links. As a result, the company may have to remove Google Search in Australia.

“The principle of unrestricted linking between websites is fundamental to search and coupled with the unmanageable financial and operational risk if this version of the code were to become law, it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia,” she said.

“Withdrawing our services from Australia is the last thing that Google want to have happen, especially when there is another way forward,” Silva added.

That other way forward is private negotiation. Silva highlighted the around 450 deals around the world Google has made with media companies to pay for content. But Google isn’t the only one preferring to remain in control of how it pays for content. Facebook also made moves to pay for content or support news organisations in recent years, the most notable example being Facebook’s Journalism Project. In March 2020, the Journalism Project invested $100m in journalism as Covid-19 took hold.
The main issue, from the perspective of the digital platforms, is that they will have to relinquish some degree of negotiating power to regulators – and they are willing to threaten to hit the self-destruct button if they don’t get their way.

But is it really just a case of digital platforms throwing their toys out the pram?


The Australian competition regulator views the current setup as a major market distortion, with Google and other digital platforms benefitting from news articles hosted on their sites for free. They want to change this, but big tech names are against the legislation, saying it would break the internet.


Why Might the News Bargaining Code Be Unworkable in Its Current Form?

It isn’t just the likes of Google and Facebook that are raising concerns about the news code. Earlier in the week, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, said the draft legislation “risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online”. This is a sentiment that Mel Silva would later adopt before the Senate committee.

“[The news code] would undermine the fundamental principle of the ability to link freely on the web and is inconsistent with how the web has been able to operate over the past three decades,” Berners-Lee went on to say. “If this precedent were followed elsewhere it could make the web unworkable around the world.”

These objections to the code in its current form appear to stick up for the rights of the internet, but legislators in Australia and campaigners claim that these arguments don’t account for the way the internet actually works today. For them, it is already the case that money buys more influence on the internet. That, in effect, people are already paying for links, and the news bargaining code would simply acknowledge this reality.

In any case, the ongoing debates are attracting the world’s attention, as other governments look to see how they might regulate news on the digital platforms. Will the outcome set a precedent for how digital platforms pay for news in their search results or feeds? Or will we see a watering down of the news bargaining code to enable smaller digital players to remain competitive in a pay-to-win market?

Whatever the case, one thing is certain: regulators around the world are watching, and they may make moves of their own very soon.

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