Australia and Google — What’s the Noise about?

Yesterday, Google said it may be forced to remove its search engine from Australia.

Australia says Google’s bullying and blackmailing tactics will not work on them.

To start off, Google is synonymous with online search. While there are over 140 search engines on the World Wide Web according to Mashable, when people want to search for information online, they say ‘Google it’. Google is uber dominant, with 92% market share across all platforms. Its next competitor, Bing, has 2.69% share. A favourite search engine of mine, DuckDuckGo in 6th position, has 0.60%.

And this dominance is for good reason. Google has invested far more in technology than any other search engine. It is well known that Google’s search algorithm is by far the most sophisticated and it is that way because they spend huge sums of money to make sure that it is. They are constantly upgrading it to make sure that they remain the best.

You probably know this. All it takes to confirm this is to search a key word across all known search engines and compare the results. Google gives the most relevant results with as much simplicity as is available, hands down. It’s so good that it even gives you results from the darkest side of the internet. (Ever heard about the Dark Web?)

For these and many reasons, companies, brands and individuals court the Google search engine. There are supposed SEO (Search Engine Optimization) experts who sell you on having your website on Google’s first page, even though no one has been able to game the Google search algorithm consistently.

When you seek answers, you go to Google to search. Most times, Google believes the answers are within reach and it will feature answers after crawling around the internet. The answers are then displayed at the top of the results, along with links to the sources of the answers.

For example, I just typed in “Sunday Igboho and Fulani”, I’m shown paragraphs from BBC, Tribune and Daily Post websites in the first three results. Ask these websites if this kind of advertisement is good and they will likely say Yes. These websites are seen as authorities on the current trending news. Good for you, good for the websites, good for Google. You get good relevant news. The websites get good traffic. Google continues to be seen as the best search engine.

Enter some websites. They say it may be good for the user and for Google, but it is definitely not good for them. They say that Google showing a paragraph from their websites destroys their search traffic. They say if the answer is right there on Google then you don’t need to click on the link to the website itself. So for the websites that rely on those clicks to generate ad revenues, they are losing.

For some results, this is not so glaring. For others, it is very much so. For instance, if I search, Richest Men in Africa, Google brings up the image of Aliko Dangote and his profile — a summary of the industries he operates in and his net worth. This result is from investopedia.com. Odds are that if I simply want to know who the richest man in Africa is, I have gotten my answer already and will not click the link to Investopedia. This is the kind of problem some of the websites are complaining about.

In 2017, Brian Warner who owns CelebrityNetWorth.com complained that the publication of these snippets on Google made the traffic to his website drop by as much as 65% year-over-year and as a result of this, he was forced to lay off half his staff.

If you notice, this happens on Facebook and Twitter too. For any link you see, you will see a description that explains what the news content is about.

So governments are being lobbied to wade in…

Governments are now saying that Google should pay the websites for their news content.

On July 31, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released a “new media bargaining code.” In essence, it requires tech companies (starting with Google and Facebook) to pay certain Australian news outlets for featuring snippets of their content.

Australia wants Google to negotiate independently with each media outlet. The platforms would essentially be required to come to an agreement with these outlets, as the bill also prohibits Google from discriminating against reputable media outlets. They’d pretty much be required to pay.

Google says it makes no sense. They argue that they offer services like Google News and YouTube for free and having to pay for these contents would mean that these free services will no longer be available. Google says it “did not intend to charge users for free services”. (Google actually shut down Google News in Spain in 2014 because of a rule like this).

Google also says that this legislation would be giving unfair advantage to major news media businesses since they have the wherewithal to successfully negotiate for large amounts of money for content, and so it would leave less money for smaller websites and YouTube creators.

It also says that it would have to share search data with news media companies, which, it argues, would give those companies the ability to change their content to rank higher in search results, also hurting smaller creators.

In essence, it argues that instead of helping small-scale creators, which is the target of the Australian government, it will push more and more funds to already big organizations and then less and less funds for the individual and small organizations.

For the government, if the policy would enable Australia’s embattled news industry to thrive, then it is worth it. The Australia newspaper industry revenues has dwindled from over $5.5bn in 2007 to $3bn in 2018. Meanwhile, Google’s revenues have increased markedly in the same period, amounting to more than $160bn globally in 2019. In the same year, Google alone was reported to have made $3.7bn in gross revenue in Australia.

As the draft bill gets readied to be passed and approved, Google has assumed some aggressive posturing. On Thursday, Google Australia and New Zealand VP Mel Silva said that if the law comes into effect “it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia.”

It is a highly unusual threat. For Google to threaten to pull out of an entire country suggests the company is worried. Australia is nowhere near its biggest market but Google executives are fearful about the precedent these new laws could set. The company has already agreed to a raft of initial deals in Germany and Brazil. On Thursday, it struck a landmark deal with media outlets in France.

The move in Australia would mean the 19 million Australians who use Google every month would no longer be able to use Google Search.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, said Australia’s plan would make the web “unworkable around the world”. A survey of Australians shows that while they back the support for the local businesses, they are apprehensive of Google’s next moves. Would Google remove Gmail or Google Map in retaliation?

Earlier this week, US trade representatives urged Australia to drop the laws which they said attempted regulation “to the clear detriment of two US firms”.

But Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has been unequivocal,

“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 and people who want to work with that, in Australia, you’re very welcome. But we don’t respond to threats.”

It remains to be seen how Google plans to win this case as is.

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