In July, the Australian government released the first draft of a new code of conduct managing the way tech giants deal with local media companies, which includes requiring them to pay for content. Google was predictably unhappy with this development, and has now responded to the proposed laws by speaking directly to its Australian users.
In an open letter addressed to Australians on Monday, Google claimed the mandatory code will give news media an “unfair advantage” over all other websites, as well as threaten Google’s free services.
“A proposed law, the News Media Bargaining Code, would force us to provide you with a dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube, could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, and would put the free services you use at risk in Australia,” Google Australia managing director Mel Silva said in the letter.
A link to the letter currently appears at the bottom of Chrome’s New Tab page for users in Australia.
Silva’s claims aren’t completely fanciful, but they require a very broad, punitive interpretation of the proposed laws.
Under Australia’s new draft code, tech companies such as Google and Facebook must give news businesses advance notice of algorithm changes that could impact how many people see their articles — changes which can mean the difference between life and death for a media website. However, Google claims supplying news websites with such information would help them to “artificially inflate” their ranking, “even when someone else provides a better result.”
“We’ve always treated all website owners fairly when it comes to information we share about ranking,” wrote Silva. “The proposed changes are not fair and they mean that Google Search results and YouTube will be worse for you.”
Google also claims the law will force it to give news websites data on how users use Google and YouTube. “There’s no way of knowing if any data handed over would be protected, or how it might be used by news media businesses,” said Silva.
In actuality, the legislation specifies that it only concerns data that’s relevant to determining exactly how much of a benefit the tech giant is getting from news websites’ content, enabling them to negotiate payment while knowing all the facts.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has since responded to Google’s letter, stating that it contains misinformation. According to the ACCC, Google will not have to charge for its services nor give more user data to local media companies “unless it chooses to do so.”
“The draft code will allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services,” said the ACCC, stating that it will continue to consult with Google and other involved parties on the proposed legislation.
Google Search and YouTube are now at risk in Australia. A new Gov law would force Google to provide you with dramatically worse products, could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, & may affect your ability to use these free services https://t.co/87VDbtVjqC pic.twitter.com/PRVZN7NkZv
— googledownunder (@googledownunder) August 17, 2020
The Australian government ordered the ACCC to develop the mandatory code of conduct in April, after local media companies claimed Google and Facebook had been dragging their feet on negotiating a voluntary agreement. The proposed law is intended to address the imbalance of bargaining power between tech giants and Australian news businesses, laying out rules on areas of concern like ranking news content, data sharing, and payment.
“This imbalance is undermining the ability and incentives for Australian news businesses to produce news content,” the ACCC wrote in documents explaining the proposed law.
“While bargaining power imbalances exist in many other contexts, intervention is necessary to address the bargaining power imbalance because of the public benefit provided by the production and dissemination of news and the importance of a strong independent media in a well-functioning democracy.”
The ACCC noted that Google and Facebook gain a significant benefit from making local news websites available to users, but that their massive sizes make them “unavoidable trading partners” for these businesses. This, the ACCC says, has resulted in significantly imbalanced commercial deals between the parties.
More help for struggling local news outlets is always welcome, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic has hit these businesses hard. France’s own competition authority intervened in April, the Autorite de la Concurrence ruling Google must pay local French news agencies for their content.
Of course, Google’s open letter has instead framed Australia’s proposed legislation as a matter of its users’ privacy and access to free services, stating that it’s already paying local media “millions of dollars and send them billions of free clicks every year.”
“This law wouldn’t just impact the way Google and YouTube work with news media businesses — it would impact all of our Australian users,” wrote Silva.
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to get this proposal changed so we can protect how Search and YouTube work for you in Australia and continue to build constructive partnerships with news media businesses — not choose one over the other.”
Mashable has reached out to Google for comment.