Over the weekend, interest peaked with news of Google potentially pulling its search services from Australia.
Google’s threat comes in response to Australia’s new code of conduct, proposed by the ACCC (Australian Competition & Consumer Commission).
Digital platforms not following this new law will be fined up to A$10 million.
- Failed Negotiations
- The new ‘Code of Conduct’
- Algorithm Changes
- The Fate of the Internet
- What if it Does go through?
Following an extensive inquiry into the impact of digital platforms (over 600 pages in length), the ACCC attempted negotiations in December 2019 originally for a voluntary code of conduct. These negotiations were unsuccessful, and the ACCC advised the Australian government that an agreement was “unlikely”.
These negotiations were initially expected to run until November 2020, but the ACCC was spurred on by the Federal Government amid the coronavirus crisis to instead begin working on a mandatory code.
Tipping the scales: ‘News media bargaining code’
The newly proposed code is a move to ‘level the playing field’ between digital companies and traditional media companies: requiring them to share advertising revenue gained from news, and address how original sources of news content should be favoured on search page results. It also covers issues surrounding the sharing of data.
This was first reported in early December, but has gained steam as Google Australia’s managing director Mel Silva stated during a Senate hearing last Friday that the new rules are ‘unworkable’, and that Google is prepared to exit the Australian market should they come to pass:
“Coupled with the unmanageable 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,”Mel Silva (Google Managing Director of Australia & New Zealand), opening statement to the Senate Economics Committee Inquiry
The code “forces Google to pay to show links in an unprecedented intervention that would fundamentally break how search engines work,” according to a Google spokesperson, saying that it would give news companies “special treatment” when giving the specified 14 days’ notice of certain algorithm changes.
Trialing Algorithm Changes
Google has been trialing new search and news algorithm changes since mid-January: “We’re currently running a few experiments that will each reach about 1 per cent of Google search users in Australia to measure the impacts of news businesses and Google search on each other,” said a Google spokesperson.
Google has tried to downplay the significance of this move, stating that they conduct “tens of thousands of experiments in Google Search” every year. But let’s be real – we all know that when they say ‘let’s take a break for a month’, it means the relationship is pretty much over.
A spokesperson at Nine (publisher of Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Australian Financial Review) said that this experiment is a “chilling illustration of their extraordinary market power”:
“Google is an effective monopoly and by withholding access to such timely, accurate and important information they show clearly how they impact what access Australians have to that,”Nine spokesperson (unnamed), “Google blocks Australian news in ‘experiment'” (Australian Financial Review)
An Ultimatum for the Fate of the Internet
Make no mistake: this is an ultimatum.
In an unprecedented move by the biggest tech conglomerate in history to deny a country their services, how this plays out will certainly set the stage for the future direction of the internet – history will certainly be made.
The outcome of this power struggle will set precedence for how tech giants -in many ways more influential and powerful than most countries– approach corporation vs country conflicts from now on.
The dystopian future portrayed for decades in sci-fi fiction where countries are outlasted by corporations – it’s already upon us.
What if it Does go through?
I’m sure you’re wondering at this point “Well, how will this impact me?” (which is likely what everyone in Australia is thinking)
Let’s have a look into the potentially bleak near future.
It’s just Google Search (so far)
So far the language used by Google specifies removal of access to their search engine only. There have been no mention of whether YouTube or other Google services (Gmail, Drive, Photos and so on) will be impacted in any way.
Should google pull its search engine services from Australia, the most immediate workaround would be to use a VPN service. (Related: What is a VPN and why do I need one?) 😉
The primary concern isn’t “Can I still use google?”, but the direct impact that this will have on Australian businesses that rely heavily on localised search results to bring them business (most prominently restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, medical/healthcare):
With the popularity of GMB (Google My Business) for a majority of consumers, it’s clear that should Google’s localised search be removed, SME and local businesses will bear the brunt of Google’s wrath (and by extension, a significant portion of the Australian economy).
Media, SEO and Online Marketing
Traditional media companies are the focus of the proposed ‘code of conduct’, but what about other industries?
Other severely impacted industries would be SEO and online marketing industries, as well as essentially all types of digital and technology industries.
Virtually ALL Australian Industries & Businesses
In actuality, all industries will be affected. Most businesses have some form of online presence. Regardless of whether Google Maps or GMB plays a role in converting customers for a business, the bottom line is that a reduced online presence and lower ‘SEO score’ will be harmful across all Australian industries.
My undergrad was in Communications, and I didn’t really take seriously the doomsayer projections of the ‘death of news media’ – that is, until now.
It’s important to recognise the power that tech giants like Google and Facebook hold over our lives: a very tangible, threatening power.
In many ways, Silicon Valley is more influential on a global scale than any country (or even collective of countries) can ever be.
The dystopian future isn’t ‘coming’ – it’s been happening.
There’s no time better than now to start educating yourself on the ways that these (relatively) unchecked conglomerates are dictating our virtual freedoms.
Your data should be yours.