Australians could find themselves unable to use Google as the company threatens to withdraw its search engine from the country.
The move is due to proposed Australian legislation that would require Google, along with other big tech companies like Facebook, to pay small news outlets for content published on their sites.
Google Australia managing director Mel Silva said that the laws were ‘unworkable’ in a Senate hearing. “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.
She said that the provision requiring payment for content “would set an untenable precedent for our business, and the digital economy. It’s not compatible with how search engines work, or how the internet works.”
Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said that the country’s lawmakers would not yield to threats. “Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia. That’s done in our parliament,” he said.
While the move would see Google block its search engine from Australia, its other services, including Gmail and YouTube, would still be available.
A week ago, reports that Australian news websites were not showing up in Google searches were confirmed by the company, saying they were blocked for about 1% of Australian users. It claimed it did so to determine the value of its service to Australian news outlets.
This earned Google a rebuke from the Australian government, which said it should focus on paying for content, not blocking it.
In July last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) introduced the draft news media bargaining code.
The stated aim was to rebalance the power dynamic between small news publishers and major digital platforms and bring about fair payment for news. Australian print media has suffered a 75% decline in advertising revenues since 2005.
Under the law, should the big techs and Australian media companies fail to agree on the value and payment for content, they would be obligated to engage in mediated negotiations.
The law is currently being debated by the Australian senate, and its due to be voted on in early this year.
The move would be a world first – a national government getting big tech companies to pay for content under a royalty-style system.
In return, opponents of the bill claimed that the tech giants were providing publicity to news outlets by providing access to an audience. They also pointed to larger concerns about government intervention in the free market.
Google claimed the move could see user data handed over to big businesses in an open letter and warned that its free search service would be “at risk”.
Facebook has also threatened to block news content in Australia over the proposed law.
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The relationship with big tech and government has been contentious for many years. The power amassed by the tech giants since the beginning of this century has put them at odds with national and supranational authorities. Issues such as gatekeeping, monopolies, censorship, and misinformation are all high on the agenda.
While for years, neither side has seemed keen to take decisive action, the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 appears to have forced the issue. The tech giants have demonstrated their power to spread misinformation and, with the subsequent deplatforming of ex-US President Donald Trump, censor. Government authorities are now considering whether big tech companies can continue operating with little to no oversight.
In many regards then, the battle between Google and the Australian Government can be seen as test case for the ongoing struggle. Compared to the powerful political blocs and large economies of the US and EU, Australia is a relatively minor market, one Google could hypothetically afford to lose.
A boycott could serve as an example of just how vital a service it provides to a nation, and the consequences a country faces for standing up to it.
On the other hand, if Australia calls their bluff and proves the impact a Google withdrawal has is minimal, it may well embolden the US and EU to reign in the big techs in the future. Even if it has a major impact, it may prove that Google’s search engine is invaluable to a country, which may drive other governments to treat it like a utility.