Google threatens to disable its search engine in Australia

Technology giant Google has threatened that it would block its search engine in Australia if the government proceeds with a new code that would force it and Facebook to pay media companies for the right to use their content. 

Mel Silva, Managing Director for Google Australia, has issued the following statement that is available in the form of an Open letter. “ We need to give you an important update about a proposed new law—currently in Senate Committee Inquiry and soon to be voted on by the Government—which would break Google Search as you know it. 

We want to explain why we believe the law—the News Media Bargaining Code—would undermine the benefits of the internet for millions of Australians, what would happen if the law passes in its current form, and why there’s a better option for supporting Australian journalism which doesn’t involve breaking the free and open web for everyone. 

The Code was originally designed to support the financial future of publishers—an important goal which we’ve committed to support. But the way it tries to achieve this would break the way Google Search works. 

Search engines (and the internet as a whole) are built on the ability to link someone to a website for free. You know how it goes. You search for a topic, and the results show up as a series of links and brief snippets of text, giving you an idea of your options before you decide whether to click through and spend your time (and potentially money) with that website or business. 

Most businesses welcome the fact that people can find them in search results—and if they don’t, they can choose not to be found. It takes a few clicks to opt out. That’s the way search engines have operated for over two decades. But the Code would throw this system out overnight, forcing Google to pay selected publishers for those links. Not for the article itself: just for the link that pops up in your results, and the brief description underneath it. 

Right now, no website or search engine pays to connect people to other sites through links. This law would change that, making Google pay to provide links for the first time in our history. If the law requires Google to pay to link people to websites, it’s a slippery slope. After all, if one type of business gets paid for appearing in Search, why shouldn’t others? Going down that route would destroy the business model of any search engine, Google included. And if a search engine has to pay to show links, what’s to stop links elsewhere coming with a price tag, too? 

It’s not just Google that has concerns about the Code. Among the groups who made submissions to a recent Senate inquiry expressing concern are the Business Council of Australia, Bundaberg Regional Council, the US Trade Representative, and the inventor of the world wide web. Others have voiced concerns previously. 

There are other serious problems remaining with the law—but at the heart of it, it comes down to this: the Code’s rules would dismantle a free and open service that’s been built to serve everyone, and replace it with one where links come at a price, and where the Government would give a handful of news businesses an advantage over everybody else. That puts Google’s business in Australia—and the services we provide more than 19 million Australians—at enormous risk. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Our objections aren’t about complying with a code or the principle of paying to support journalists—but how we do that matters. We need to find a way of supporting journalism without breaking Google Search—and we’ve come to the table with a solution. 

We’re proposing to reach deals to pay publishers through Google News Showcase, a program we’ll invest AU$1.3 billion in globally over the next three years to help news businesses publish and promote their stories online—paying for their editorial expertise and beyond-the-paywall access to their journalism, rather than for links. Since News Showcase launched last year, we’ve doubled the number of publications that are part of the program globally to nearly 450—and we know Australian publishers want to be involved. We think News Showcase is the right solution for negotiating payments to publishers under the Code. It offers a fair, practical way forward, meets the original goals of the law, and helps secure a strong future for Australian news. 

The ability to link freely between websites is fundamental to Search. This code creates an unreasonable and unmanageable financial and operational risk to our business. If the Code were to become law in its current form, we would have no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia. That is the last thing I or Google want to have happen—especially when there is a way forward that allows us to support Australian journalism without breaking Search. We think that would be a bad outcome not just for us, but for the millions of people and businesses across Australia who use Google Search every day. 

The good news is: there’s still time to get the Code right. We participated in a recent Senate hearing, and we’re going to keep making our case as clearly and constructively as we can. We look forward to working with the policymakers and publishers to achieve an outcome that’s fair for everyone.” 

“We don’t respond to threats,” Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison said  in response . “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.” 

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