It was hard to imagine how the internet could occupy any more space in our minds until the conversation suddenly turned inwards this year, where debates over ethics and internet freedom have taken centre stage. It suddenly feels like 2005 again, where the whole world was talking simultaneously about the future of the internet, through the lens of these bright new internet companies who were set on changing the way we communicated and did business. Except now many of us are feeling like perhaps we should have been better parents to these companies during these important years, placing clearer boundaries in the earlier years. If we did, perhaps then these tech companies would have turned to be better corporate citizens?
Last week, Alphabet Inc’s Google stepped up its threat to withdraw its main search engine from Australia in response to new legislation set to pass the Australian parliament that enforces the major platforms to pay for news snippets listed on search result pages.
Mel Silva, Managing Director for Google Australia outlined, with all the congeniality we’ve come to expect of America’s foreign tech titan ambassadors, that the future of search and the internet is at stake:
“If you are like most Australians, you use google search to find and learn things online. Whether it's help with homework, an easy dinner recipe, or directions to a local take-away shop. But a proposed new law, the News Media Bargaining Code, would break the way search works in Australia. Now I know that sounds pretty full on, but it’s true. You know how search works. You search, we show you links, and you decide what site to go to. The new law means that Google would have to pay certain news companies to show links to their sites.”
Ms Silver goes on to add that: “...when you put a price on linking to certain information, you break the way search engines work, and you no longer have a free and open web.”
Is that really true? Last week, the Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg met with Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg to no doubt have similar discussions. What is it in this legislation that is so frightening and should we expect to no longer have a free and open web as a result?
On reading the proposed bill, there’s a range of conditions that are being placed on digital platforms that probably go some ways towards eroding and irritating the California tech posse in ways other countries have been more demure about to date. These include the platforms being required to notify registered news platforms of changes to their algorithm within 28 days if the changes are likely to impact upon news search results and also provide information on how registered news businesses can “minimise negative effects of the change on the ranking of its covered news content" (p.16, News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, 2020).
Habits are hard to break, especially when they’ve been favoring your business model and mode of international expansion for a few decades.
The main event, the real heart of Google’s beef, relates to the way in which news media and digital platforms negotiate for the payment of fees. What the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code spells out is a fair and transparent method of arbitration between two organisations, a set of rules for market players to interact. Yes it’s new and yes I imagine it must have the same sensation as having to wear pants after wearing a kilt for twenty years, but would it destroy the internet and would we all be worse off? I highly doubt it.
You have to go back to Web 1.0, before the dotcom bubble to understand why Google would be smarting in such a way. Back in the 1990’s it must have felt extremely liberating to be operating and making up the rules as it expanded across the globe. In Australia, we had our own local search platform, the long defunct LookSmart, co-founded by Martin Hosking, who now heads up ASX listed RedBubble. Search was a competitive landscape, just as fintech is today and it was a race to own search. Aided by American venture capital and a dotcom burst which obliterated much of the first coming of retail internet, Google was able to grow its technical advantage and gain a global market dominance nearly unheard of outside of crony capitalist economies. It set up the rules of how it wanted to play in every market in the world with little resistance from policy makers who were still trying to make sense of the internet itself or caught up in the restructuring of the music industry brought on by Napster and later Limewire. The completeness of Google’s ascendence as a behemoth in its early days has clearly a lot to do in the way that it deals with State powers today. Global dominance was inevitable, except in China.
In 2010, Google exited China. It was the one market that the company could not conquer from sheer global incumbency. The reasons why it left the Chinese market may be instructive of the type of behaviour we’ve come to see today. Back then Google was concerned about the Chinese Government’s interference with user privacy across a range of its platforms, including Gmail. The company was right to be concerned about balancing its ambitions of growth with the core interests of its users.
In 2016, Kaveh Wadell, a journalist for the Atlantic, laid out an insight that might become prescient for this decade:
“Google’s move to pull the plug in China is an extreme example of the kinds of decisions Internet companies operating abroad are often up against: If they want to do business, they have to abide by local laws, which can include restrictions on speech. And since the United States has some of the most permissive freedom-of-speech laws in the world, American companies must adapt in order to do business even in parts of the world that are culturally very similar to the U.S" (The Atlantic, 2016)
China is not Australia and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is not Xi Jinping: in fact our two countries are finally being forced to have a decent conversation about what difference, fairness and autonomy should look like, but that’s a topic for another essay. Instead, I’d like to draw the comparison between the one country Google has threatened to pull out of, the country that it is threatening to pull out of today and the different motivations in each scenario.
Is the Australian government actively trying to spy on its citizens or stifle free speech? Is Australia endangering the privacy of internet users by exploring these changes. It doesn’t appear so in this instance. More relevantly, the impetus for these rules comes from the weakening of news media and quality debate as a result in Australia. While China continues to practice the silencing of journalists (including our own Australian citizen Cheng Lei, a business news anchor for state-run broadcaster China Global Television Network who was arrested in August for allegedly endangering national security amid tension between China and Australia), Australia and other democracies around the world are attempting to bolster news media. If Google has a beef about Australia, it has more to do about the threat of its business model than protecting the rights of Australian citizens. Is Google threatening to essentially deplatform an entire country over money?
Today, Google’s dominance in search is unprecedented. It has 86.86% of search, basically a monopoly on the internet. In Australia, Google collects 53 cents in every dollar of online advertising spent: higher than the top marginal tax rate for individuals in Australia. With that type of market dominance, even the slightest change in business conditions — particularly if they are coming from Government, which has traditionally been so hands off — must feel terrifying. So when Google cries fowl about having to give up profit to pay for content it uses on its platform, it’s Google who has set the rules for over 20 years and who has set up this environment to best dominate and profit. How dare someone change the rules of how search works overnight? Surely that’s not fair for us Australians: we must stand together and write our objections to the ACCC!
But let’s take a look at the moment to changes in search that have impacted upon internet users. In 2011, Google rolled out the “Panda” update, followed by the “Penguin” update in 2012, “Hummingbird” in 2013, “Pigeon” in 2014, and “Mobilegeddon” in 2015. When Google makes these updates it is changing the way in which its search results show up by altering the rules of its algorithm. The results can be minor, but many are absolutely dramatic for many businesses. While some have suffered a decrease in search engine ranking (and subsequently, a major drop in traffic), others have been completely erased from Google’s index. There is no consultation with business, there is no remedy either for those who have found their source of income or sense of self worth dissolved by deployment to Google’s codebase. Extending this to a news environment, where the change of an algorithm can make important news stories slide away from view against less qualified new outlets or disappear entirely, then one has the right to question if Google’s argument for an open and free internet is just a convenient and self serving one.
The truth to the matter is that while Google’s “idea” of search may break, we are more likely to have a freer and more just internet as a result. As Australians we’re a passionate but fickle bunch. What happened to our favorite coffee shop that tragically shut down as a result of COVID? No idea: we walked five meters down the road to the new one that opened up during the same time and we’ve never bat an eyelid. If Google does choose to shut down search in Australia, then just as Facebook has watched users move to Parler, Telegram and Signal over the past month over privacy concerns, Australian will just as quickly shift to another search engine and not even bat an eyelid.
While Google is seemingly omnipotent in Australia, other more suitable, more “2021 like” competitors exist, including DuckDuckGo, which grew by 62% in 2020 as users started to put privacy at the top of their shopping list. Then there’s Ecosia, which donates 80 per cent of the profits it makes from this to tree-planting charities.
From an industry perspective, I’d like to see our product designers and technologists in this country give search their attention to see how it might be improved upon.
As issues of privacy, free speech and algorithmic wormholing become more dominant this decade, I think we all might feel less boxed in if Google’s search dominance were to decrease and allow other competitors to start to imagine what the internet could look like. And that could all start this year if Google does in fact find itself in a situation where it does spit the dummy, packs up and leaves. I’ve heard many argue that Google must win this battle in Australia or depart the market to clearly tell a cautionary tale to other countries around the world that are contemplating similar legislative steps. I believe the opposite is more likely to happen. Other countries, which rightly haven’t signed up for Google News Showcase, are more likely to sit back and watch other search providers enter the Australian market, see the pragmatism of Australian internet users and follow suit. Then, perhaps Google and the other platforms, might start to reflect on their own experience of freedom and just how lucky they were to experience what they did when they were young.