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In “experiment,” Google removes some Australian news from local search results

By L. Carol Christopher

INMA

Pleasant Hill, California, USA

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In what is an unlikely example of what Mel Silva, vice president of Google Australia and New Zealand, called “making its case constructively,” Google has been intermittently and experimentally blocking some Australian news sites from some search users.

What users saw instead — in some instances — was content from other sites and old links. “Google’s Australian search page also greeted users with a message claiming there are widespread concerns about the new code,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported

What users didn’t see at all was some Australian news sites, such as The Australian Financial Review, News Corp media, and Guardian Australia, according to Barron’s, which reported that a Google spokesman said “the changes were part of the ‘tens of thousands of experiments it runs.”

The reported few week experiment isn't well received by Australian new media companies.
The reported few week experiment isn't well received by Australian new media companies.

“’We’re currently running a few experiments that will reach about 1% of Google Search users in Australia to measure the impacts of news businesses and Google Search on each other,’” a Google spokesman told Barron’s. These particular experiments are scheduled to finish by early February.

The context

INMA spoke to one Australian publisher by e-mail, who told us: “Any attempt to hide legitimate news sources from people searching for information is deeply concerning, on many levels — both to Australians who use Google to find their news and to the legitimate news services that employ journalists to conduct journalism that is fundamental to a healthy, free, and fair society.”

The Sydney Morning Herald described the context: “The admission from the digital giant comes in the middle of a battle between the federal government and the tech giants over plans to force Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for their content.” 

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, a spokesman for Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg pointed to provisions in the proposed code that would require 14 days’ notice of significant, human-made changes to its algorithms. Those provisions would prevent news organisations from being surprised by such “experiments.”

The move represents a more threatening show of force than that found in the tone of its blog posts over recent months, suggesting a move similar to Facebook’s threat to block sharing of Australian news if the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and Australian Parliament proceed with the provisions of the News Media Bargaining Code as written. As this article was being published, Google threatened to shut down search in Australia if the digital news code goes ahead, reported The Guardian.

“Google is now demonstrating how easily they can make Australian news providers who fall out of their favour effectively disappear from the Internet — a chilling illustration of their extraordinary market power,” said a spokesman for Nine to The Sydney Morning Herald. 

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the ACCC’s chairman, Rod Sims, said at a Reuters conference: “Google and Facebook don’t need any particular news media business. They need them all, but they don’t need them individually. … And so that meant you had massive bargaining power imbalance.”

Frydenberg said that Google and Facebook should not be preventing Australians from accessing local news, according to Barron’s: “The digital giants should focus on paying for original content, not blocking it.”

Blocking legitimate news content threatens the commercial viability of journalism, independent news coverage, affects the diversity of news and opinion found on Google, and increases the risk that search will become an echo chamber similar to other media platforms, one publisher told INMA by e-mail.

The experiments also come at a time when governments in North America, the European Union, and the United Kingdom are looking to Australia’s code as a model for their own dealings with tech giants. In Australia, digital platforms face fines of up to A$10 million (US$7.7 million) if they do not comply with the decision,” Reuters reported

“Any decision to block legitimate news content to Australians should be a concern to the entire country — and observers in other nations — not just to news publishers in Australia,” an Australian publisher told INMA.

Google’s proposal

Google has been calling the path unworkable, according to Reuters, focusing particularly on the requirement “to provide publishers with two weeks’ notice of certain changes to algorithms and internal practice.” In a December blog post, Google also strenuously objected to the arbitration process and the idea that remuneration would occur outside the Google News Showcase parameters. 

“Our objections aren’t about the principle of paying to support journalists, but how we do that matters,” Google's Silva said. “Instead of requiring payment for linking to Web sites — changing the basic principle that makes Google Search and the Internet work — we have proposed a model where Google would pay Australian news businesses through Google News Showcase: our A$1.38 billion (US$1 billion) commitment to partner with publishers around the world on a new way of presenting and promoting news online.”

Silva continued: “This programme, designed to drive traffic, lift subscriptions, and generate revenue for publishers, remains on hold in Australia until we can be sure that the final Code is workable.”

Significant concerns

The News Media Bargaining Code was revised in December in response to submissions to the ACCC. One change in particular did not go as publishers hoped: In determining remuneration amounts, Google’s value to news media companies — the readers and viewers they refer — must be considered, not just the news media’s value to Google. Another change was the exclusion of Facebook’s Instagram and Google’s YouTube from the code’s requirements — for now. And notice of algorithm change is down to 14 days from 28 days.

A new round of submissions, which just finished last week, followed that revision. In a January 12 blog post timed to solicit additional submissions for the revised code, Mel Silva categorised six “significant concerns” Google culled from among the 426 responses to the pre-December version of the code and that are the basis for Google’s labeling of it as “unworkable.” These concerns are: 

  1. The requirement that digital platforms pay select news companies for links and snippets.
  2. The requirement to provide “special treatment” to news businesses over other Web sites (algorithm notifications).
  3. Unfair rules to determine payments (arbitration and one-way valuation of services).
  4. Impaired usefulness of online services for millions of people.
  5. Negative impacts on media diversity in Australia.
  6. Harm to investment in Australia and the digital economy.

The submissions from the most recent period had not yet been posted at publication time on the ACCC Web site. A final vote is scheduled for February 18.

ACCC response

ACCC’s chairman Rod Sims and Treasurer Frydenberg remain determined. According to Reuters: “Australia’s competition regulator has warned that planned laws to make the country the first in the world to force Google and Facebook to pay for news content were likely just the start of more regulation for digital platforms.” 

“This bargaining code is a journey. If we see market power elsewhere, we can add them to the code,” Sims said in an interview for Reuters Next.

About L. Carol Christopher

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