Google Hits Back at New Australian Law, Mobilises Search Platform in Public Awareness Campaign

August 17, 2020 Updated: August 22, 2020

Google Australia has unleashed a public awareness campaign, warning web users they risk “dramatically worse” services under proposed new laws that will compel the search giant to negotiate pay deals with media publishers and provide access to data.

The Australian consumer watchdog hit back on the same day claiming Google’s campaign contained “misinformation.”

On Aug. 17, Google users in Australia were greeted with pop-up windows, social media posts, and a message on the main Google search page, encouraging them to click through to a statement titled: Open letter to Australians.

Epoch Times Photo
The Open letter to Australian users published by Google Australia on Aug. 17 (Screenshot).

The letter claimed the new mandatory code introduced by the federal government on July 31 would give users a “dramatically worse” Google Search and YouTube experience.

The code, announced by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, will compel Google and Facebook to enter negotiations with media companies to pay for their content.

The code goes a step further, however, and compels the tech giants to be more transparent with their data and algorithms.

For example, Google and Facebook must notify publishers of changes to their algorithm which may affect web traffic to news, the ranking of news behind paywalls, and any changes to how news and advertising are presented.

“The law would force us to give an unfair advantage to one group of businesses—news media businesses—over everyone else who has a website, YouTube channel or small business,” according to Google Australia’s Managing Director Mel Silva.

The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) however found in its 2019 Digital Inquiry Platforms report that despite the benefits Google offered, small businesses were still at a significant disadvantage in terms of bargaining power and were unlikely to find alternative services.

A pop-up window featuring Google Australia's warning to users about upcoming legislation that will compel it to pay media publishers for content and provide access to data (Screenshot).
A pop-up window featuring Google Australia’s warning to users about upcoming legislation that will compel it to pay media publishers for content and provide access to data (Screenshot).

“News media businesses alone would be given information that would help them artificially inflate their ranking over everyone else, even when someone else provides a better result,” Silva continued.

Google Australia said it currently treats all website owners fairly when it comes to their search ranking.

It also said it was hard to know whether data provided to media companies would be “protected” and whether Google could continue to offer free services in future.

Epoch Times Photo
A disclaimer on the Google search page directing Australian users to an open letter regarding the Australian government’s upcoming legislation on Aug. 17 (Screenshot).

On the same day, the ACCC issued a statement in response saying Google’s letter contained “misinformation” about the code.

“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,” the ACCC stated. “Google will not be required to share any additional user data with Australian news businesses 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,” it added. “This will address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook.

“A healthy news media sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy.”

The new code is subject to a consultation period until Aug. 28.

Rob Nicholls, associate professor at the University of New South Wales, told The Epoch Times on Aug. 17, that the timing of Google’s letter was designed to encourage individuals to make submissions to the ACCC.

An image of the Google logo is reflected on the eye of a man in London
An image of the Google logo is reflected on the eye of a man in London on Aug. 9, 2017. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Nicholls said that while Google’s letter didn’t address the actual content of the code, it was “part of the cut and thrust of lobbying.”

“There is a potential that the Senate might amend the code in order to meet demands from constituents. In my view, this is relatively unlikely,” he said.

“If the code becomes law, then Google will need to make the choice between abiding by the code or exiting Australia,” Nicholls added.

The mandatory code was announced following an 18-month long process beginning with the federal government tasking the ACCC to conduct an inquiry into the market influence of the digital giants.

An initial report found a “fundamental bargaining power imbalance” between the digital platforms and other media.

In December 2019, the federal government tasked the ACCC to work with Google, Facebook, and media companies on creating a voluntary code.

However in April this year, the ACCC reported to the government that negotiations were fruitless.

On April 20, the treasurer along with the communications minister announced that the ACCC would be developing a mandatory code, which was released on July 31.