Google has decided to hide some Australian news sites from its search results, in a move that is being interpreted as a response to the Australian Government attempting to make the tech giant pay for original news content.
- Google is currently burying links to some Australian commercial news sites
- The company says the “experiment” only affects about 1 per cent of Australian users
- Experts say tech giant is “throwing its weight around” while under pressure to pay for local news content
The search algorithm tweak affects a small percentage of users and buries links to some commercial news sites, a Google spokesperson said.
“Every year we conduct tens of thousands of experiments in Google Search,” they said.
“We’re currently running a few experiments that will each reach about 1 per cent of Google Search users in Australia to measure the impacts of news businesses and Google Search on each other.”
The experiments will conclude by early February, the spokesperson said.
Google would not say whether it was also burying links to the ABC and SBS, which are included alongside commercial media in the proposed code to make platforms pay for content.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) estimates Google accounts for 95 per cent of search traffic.
Belinda Barnet, an expert on media regulation at Swinburne University, said though Google was trying to downplay the significance of the move, it was clearly “throwing its weight around”.
The point of this, Dr Barnet said, was to give the impression it doesn’t need the news content it’s being asked to pay for and that it “has the power to disappear news outlets completely.”
Chris Cooper, executive director of Reset Australia, an organisation working to counter digital threats to democracy, said Google’s experiment was “grossly irresponsible”.
He said it appeared to be an extension of the “same kind of aggressive campaigning” against the proposal to make it pay for news content.
Last year, Google ran widespread ads on its platforms saying that the proposal meant “the way Aussies use Google is at risk” — a statement that the ACCC said was “misleading” to Australians.
“They are threatening shutting off news to the public in order to stoke some kind of fear,” Mr Cooper said.
News of the tweak was first reported earlier this week by the Australian Financial Review (AFR). A spokesperson for Nine, the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Australian Financial Review (AFR), said in a statement that Google’s “experiment” was a “chilling illustration of their extraordinary market power”.
“Google is an effective monopoly and by withholding access to such timely, accurate and important information they show clearly how they impact what access Australians have to that,” a spokesperson said.
“At the same time, Google are now demonstrating how easily they can make Australian news providers who fall out of their favour effectively disappear from the internet.”
Google should pay for content, not block it: Treasurer
In early December 2020, the Australian Government tabled legislation that will force Google and Facebook to pay news organisations for access to their journalism.
Under the code, media organisations can bargain with the digital platforms for the amount charged per piece of content. If the bargaining is unsuccessful, the decision goes to arbitration. A panel of arbiters can make a final decision.
The mandatory bargaining code is the result of many years of complaints from traditional media outlets that social media platforms pay nothing for the work of journalists but make millions of dollars through advertising.
Releasing a draft version of the code last year, the ACCC said Google and Facebook should treat media organisations as exceptional among businesses, “as a strong and independent media landscape is essential to a well-functioning democracy”.
In response, Google and Facebook have argued media organisations are not accounting for the benefit they derive from search engines sending traffic to their sites.
Google has accounted for this benefit: it estimates the referral traffic was worth $218m to publishers in 2018.
It says its remains “committed to getting to a workable code” that is “fair for everyone”, but argues that forcing the company to pay to show links “would fundamentally break how search engines work”.
Introducing the proposed laws last year, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg pointed to the plummeting advertising revenues of print newspapers as evidence that publishers are losing more than they gain.
“For every $100 of online advertising spend, $53 goes to Google, $28 goes to Facebook, and $19 goes to other participants,” he said at the time.
On Thursday, Mr Frydenberg said Google’s latest algorithm tweak would not deter the Government from pursuing the mandatory bargaining code legislation, which is currently before a Senate committee.
“The digital giants should focus on paying for original content, not blocking it,” he said.
Google may be ‘shooting itself in the foot’
The data gathered by Google by its experiment would help the company argue that referrals to media outlets are worth more money than the ad revenue generated around this content, Dr Barnet said.
But by reminding Australians and the Government of Google’s immense market power, the algorithm tweak could have the consequence of reinforcing the worth of a code that addresses a power imbalance between news organisations and the tech giant.
“Google is prepared to shoot itself in the foot to prove a point,” Dr Barnet said.
Though Australia accounts for only a small proportion of Google and Facebook’s business, the code is the first of its kind in the world and could set a precedent for other countries.
At a press conference this week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Australia’s “world-leading” media bargaining code had been “acknowledged not just by regulatory agencies, but by other governments around the world.”
Along with Google, Facebook has criticised the proposed code, warning it could block Australians from sharing local news as a consequence.
Mr Cooper from Reset Australia said both Google and Facebook have a history of strongly resisting any regulation.
“We know media publishers around the world are watching this progress of this code very keenly,” he said.
“If it’s successful, it’s guaranteed there will be replications of this legislation in other parts of the world.”