Australian lawmakers are due on February 16 to start debates on a path-breaking law that will force tech giants Google and Facebook to negotiate with local publishers over use of their proprietary content on the tech platforms. If the Bill is passed, which is widely expected to happen in the next few days, Google has threatened to end its search service in the country and Facebook has said it could block users from sharing news links on the social network.
Australia’s law is not based on copyrights over news reports, but on the principle of fair competition. The two tech companies together hold extraordinary bargaining power over Australia’s entire publishing empire — a 33 percent share of the Australian advertising market; and Facebook, the smaller of the two companies measured by market capitalisation, is 80 times bigger than Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the country’s largest media group.
Besides the business aspect, there is much confusion about the law’s effect on an ‘open’ Internet. Even the web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners Lee, seems to have got it wrong, warning an Australian Senate committee that the Australian law would impact any web links from being embedded in content by Internet users.
In reality, the law would only bar Google from publishing the web links, including snippets of content, containing proprietary news reports from Australian publishers. In the case of Facebook, it would bar users from posting the same from Australian publishers. All others, including Microsoft’s Bing search engine and other Internet users, will be at liberty to publish the news links.
Similarly, Vinton Cerf, widely known as father of the Internet, told the same Senate panel that its proposed law would “inhibit discovery of information”. In part, it is unsurprising because Cerf works for Google. In part, it is likely untrue.
Last month, Australia’s Monash University studied results for several search terms on three search engines — Google, Bing and Ecosia. The result: “Bing and Ecosia delivered substantially more professionally produced news in the top 50 results compared with Google,” according to The Guardian.
The Monash study’s broad findings are two-fold. One, news forms a disproportionate part of search results and, likely, expectations, an area in which many search engines have caught up with Google. Two, Google’s search engine may not be far ahead of other rivals as is believed. The study suggests Google may have only a slight edge over other search engines. A reason why rivals are still unable to compete effectively with Google is its extraordinary brand power and its ability to monetise search results.
Will Google and Facebook pull the plug?
Many wrongly believe the law will cause Google to pull out all its products from the Australian market, or that Australia could build a so-called Great Barrier Firewall. Both are simply unfounded. Google has only threatened to end its search service if the Bill is passed. Other products such as Gmail and YouTube will remain available to Australians.
In fact, it is not even certain that Google will carry through its threat to end the search service. In the light of Microsoft’s opportunistic move to offer its Bing service, and Monash University’s findings, Google could very well choose to stay and fight in what is a lucrative market.
Google has already signed multiple deals with news publishers, without waiting for the law to kick in. Clearly, Google accepts that it needs to start paying publishers for news hosted on its platforms. What it does not want is a legal framework to enforce it. It also has reservations on some other provisions in the Bill, such as one that requires the two tech platforms to inform publishers in advance of any changes in their algorithms that govern news.
Facebook, likely, will weigh the costs of barring users from posting news links. News has been known to provide the ‘stickiness’ that counts towards more minutes spent on the social network by users. If its algorithm suggests that average user minutes might fall without news, Facebook could well bury the threat and make peace with publishers.
What’s in it for India?
The Australian experiment, if one could call it that, affords lessons for India. But so far they have fallen on the deaf ears of publishers, regulators and the government in India.
In India, publishers remain fragmented, and are focused so much on the present challenges that they do not expect Google and Facebook to immediately shore up their finances. Regulators have on their radar some issues pertaining to Google but not on news; and let’s say that empowering media to be stronger in any sense of the term is not a government priority.
On the contrary, a weaker and pliant media is seen as a more effective tool for government.