Google’s testimony to an Australian Senate committee on Friday threatening to withdraw its search services from Australia is chilling to anyone who cares about democracy.
It marks the latest escalation in the globally significant effort to regulate the way the big tech platforms use news content to drive their advertising businesses and the catastrophic impact on the news media across the world.
While some nations have attempted to address the relationship between the social media platforms and traditional media through copyright law, Australia has seen it as a form of market distortion requiring more fundamental intervention. The news bargaining code, which would require Google and Facebook to negotiate a fair price for the use of news content, is the product of an 18-month process driven by the competition regulator.
That legislation is currently before the Australian parliament, where a Senate committee is taking final submissions from interested parties. The Google bombshell makes explicit what has been a slowly escalating threat that a binding code would not be tenable. Facebook too reinforced earlier threats to prevent Australian users sharing news.
While Google and Facebook claim they are prepared to value news, they are determined this will be on their terms through private negotiations where they will have the upper hand; rather than through a formal bargaining framework that they must submit to.
In recent days Google has begun removing news from some users’ accounts in what it has claimed is an “experiment”, but which seems to be a precursor to a wholesale purging of news content from searches.
This is happening in an environment where credible news and public interest journalism is more important than ever – providing accurate and timely information during crises like last summer’s Australian bushfires and throughout the public health challenges of the global pandemic. We have also witnessed from a distance how disinformation online has caused real harm and violence following the insurrection in the US capital.
Big tech’s lobbying prowess has been carefully calibrated after recruiting two heavyweights of the internet. Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the web) and Vint Cerf (the “father of the internet” turned Google executive), both made submissions to the Senate inquiry, asserting the laws would undermine the ethos of the free and open web they created where content is accessible to everyone, distribution is fair and democratic, and no one platform or provider has unfair advantage.
This beautiful yet naive version of the internet was one that we all signed up for, but sadly is one that no longer exists. Over the two decades since Berners-Lee invented the web, Google and Facebook have come to dominate the internet, with Google having a monthly audience of 19 million and Facebook 17 million in Australia alone. For most Australians, Google and Facebook are the internet, or at the very least, the key gateway to it.
This is a fact clear not only to Australians, but the US companies’ own government, which has filed several anti-trust lawsuits against the duopoly. Google hearkens to a time of a democratic web, but is wilfully ignorant in its central role in dismantling it.
What Google and Facebook are really worried about is not the “free and open” internet, but that Australia is pushing forward what would be an international precedent in paying for content that would encourage other countries to do the same.
There is no doubt that the implications of pulling Google Search in Australia would be huge, and there are some complex questions that remain unanswered. What would become of other services like Google Maps, Google Docs and Gmail? Is the company willing to blockade the entire Google ecosystem to spite Australia?
But what Google and Facebook’s threats today really show is that for all their rhetoric of liberty and freedom, they ultimately put their commercial interests ahead of the democratic processes of the nations they operate in.
What is interesting about the stand-off is the unity of purpose of Australian politicians across the partisan divide, with all parties supporting the code. While there was a vigorous pushback from the prime minister later in the day, the dynamics of global corporations dictating terms to elected representatives has the potential to unify rather than divide our elected leaders.
In pushing so hard, Google and Facebook have elevated the code to a test of our democratically elected representatives’ ability to govern. They have backed the Australian government into a corner, and now the government has no option but to reject their bullying threats and move forward with the code, or surrender our democratic processes to big tech.
This is how far Google is prepared to throw its weight around to resist real regulation.
• Peter Lewis is the director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology