Australians could lose their “gateway to the internet” this year after Google threatened to lock them out of its search engine in an unprecedented retaliation against laws to make it pay for the news it uses.
The lockout, which was described as an attempt to hold Australian politicians to “ransom,” would make Australia one of only two countries that could not access Google web searches, with the other being China.
The move would also cost Google more than $4.3 billion in revenue every year, and has been described by experts as a “chilling” threat against democracy and a demonstration of the trillion-dollar company’s market power.
But Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Federal Government would not back down from efforts to make Google and Facebook pay Australian news outlets for their content, saying the country’s laws were made “in our parliament” and “we don’t respond to threats”.
The American internet giant fired the unprecedented shot in a Senate inquiry into Australia’s News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, in which Facebook also doubled down on its promise to ban all news stories and videos from its platform in Australia to evade the law.
The mandatory code, proposed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission after an 18-month inquiry into digital platforms, would require Facebook and Google to reach agreements to pay registered local media outlets for the use of their content.
But Google Australia managing director Mel Silva told the inquiry the company disagreed with elements of the proposed law, including its negotiation format, and considered reaching multiple agreements with Australian media under its conditions a “financial and operational risk”.
“If this version of the code were to become law it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google search available in Australia,” Ms Silva told the inquiry.
“Now, that would be a bad outcome for us but also for the Australian people, media diversity, and the small businesses who use our products every day.”
If banned in the country, Ms Silva said Australians would simply see a message on Google’s search page that explained it was “unable to offer that service in Australia.”
She said Google would prefer Australian media outlets to sign up to its News Showcase program that would pay news outlets across the world $1.3 billion over three years to use their content.
Swinburne University social media senior lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet said Google’s threat was designed to scare Australian politicians into abandoning the laws, but also showed how much revenue the tech giant was willing to give up to avoid a worldwide standard to pay for news.
“If they’re serious and it’s not just all huffing and puffing, it means Google is willing to forego $4.3 billion in advertising revenue per annum to not set a global precedent,” Dr Barnet said.
“Let’s be realistic: it would not cost them that much to pay a fair price for news content (in Australia). They’re willing to forego that much to not have other countries take similar action.”
Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology director Peter Lewis said Google’s intimidation and threat to lock Australians out of its biggest service was “chilling for anyone who values our democracy”.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Federal Government would not abandon its legislation based on the demands or threats of tech giants.
“Let me be clear: Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia. That’s done in our parliament. It’s done by our government. And that’s how things work here in Australia,” he said.
“And people who want to work with that, in Australia, you’re very welcome, but we don’t respond to threats.”
Google’s announcement also comes just weeks after it held an “experiment” by hiding Australian news stories from its search results, with Nine Entertainment chief digital officer Chris Janz revealing articles from the ABC, Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and The Australian were blocked.
“Some people searching for ‘coronavirus New South Wales’ received just a single news story at the top of their results — a three-week-old update from Al Jazeera,” he told the inquiry.
“You either play by their rules or not at all. If you don’t play ball, Google has shown they’re not afraid to effectively make you disappear from the internet.”
Removing access to Google’s search engine would have a significant and immediate effect in Australia, with Dr Barnet calling its product the “gateway to the internet” for most users.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission found Google handled 95 per cent of internet search traffic in the country, and its removal would force users to seek alternatives such as Microsoft’s Bing, privacy-focused offering DuckDuckGo, Yahoo and Ecosia.
Mr Janz said the removal of Google’s search engine in Australia may bring more readers back to the websites of “traditional publishers” but it wouldn’t “necessarily be a great outcome for the broader media market”.
The Senate Committee investigating the news code is due to finalise its report by February 12.