Google, Australian government exchange harsh public warnings on Big Tech regulations

By L. Carol Christopher

INMA

Pleasant Hill, California, USA

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The news publishing world has been closely watching the volleys between Australia’s consumer protection agency (the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) and digital platforms. Following difficulties in negotiating a voluntary agreement, the agency mandated just weeks ago that the platforms negotiate with publishers, primarily over remuneration, control of first party user data, and advance notification of algorithm changes.

The arrangement was announced in late July and hailed by many as a significant breakthrough. But both sides have had more to say in the past 24 hours.

In addition to a letter by Managing Director of Google Australia/New Zealand Mel Silva, Google placed this warning on Australian search pages.
In addition to a letter by Managing Director of Google Australia/New Zealand Mel Silva, Google placed this warning on Australian search pages.

Among the ills Google listed Monday in an open letter to Australians were:

  • A “dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube” experience.
  • Personal data being handed over to “big news businesses,” and might be abused or no longer be protected.
  • The possibility that free services would be at risk in Australia.
  • Unfair advantage to news media businesses over everyone else with a Web site, YouTube channel, or small business.

The letter, signed by Mel Silva, managing director of Google Australia and New Zealand, who has called the code “heavy handed,” said that “news media businesses alone would be given information that would help them artificially inflate their ranking over everyone else.” She claimed Google partners closely with Australian news media businesses, paying them millions of dollars every year. 

Beyond the letter, however, Google’s Australian search page now carries a bright yellow exclamation point to emphasise a warning: “The way Aussies search every day on Google is at risk from new government regulation.” It is accompanied by a link to the open letter. 

Chair of the ACCC Rod Sims responded quickly to Google's public letter.
Chair of the ACCC Rod Sims responded quickly to Google's public letter.

Almost immediately, the ACCC fired back with a brief post to its Web site. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Rod Sims, head of the agency, accused Google of spreading misinformation to Australians about the consequences to consumers of the recently mandated code of conduct, the News Media Bargaining Code with these key points:

  1. Google will not be required to charge Australians for the use of its free services such as Google Search and YouTube, unless it chooses to do so.
  2. Google will not be required to share any additional user data with Australian news businesses unless it chooses to do so.
  3. The draft code will allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services.
  4. This will address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook.
  5. A healthy news media sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy.
  6. We will continue to consult on the draft code with interested parties, including Google. 

On the same day, The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that Google is “coincidentally” delaying its local licensing deals. According to the News Corp newspaper: “Google’s plans to improve relationships with some local publishers, including Crikey and The Saturday Paper, have been put on ice …” 

The publisher describe the delay as “an indicator the licensing programme was an attempt to establish an alternative to legislation, which would force them to potentially pay much larger sums of money to publishers.”

Stay tuned to see how this plays out  in the coming days and weeks.

About L. Carol Christopher

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