- The Washington Times
Thursday, February 18, 2021

Australia’s proposed law to make tech giants pay for the news articles shared on their networks has Google and Facebook doing a good cop/bad cop routine.

Facebook is playing hardball with Aussie publishers and lawmakers. It has blocked news publishers’ content.


Google is pursuing a hand-shake and back-slap approach. The search engine behemoth has been cutting deals with news outfits.

The ruckus Down Under provides a lesson for Washington about the tech giants’ response to a crackdown.

As a way of rebalancing the economic disparities between thriving Big Tech companies and struggling news outlets, the Australian law will compel internet companies to pay news organizations. An arbitration panel would serve as a safety net of sorts to prevent the Big Tech players from making take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums in the negotiations.

Google contends the law requires it to “pay for clicks” by users and has attempted to head off the coming law. The company negotiated deals with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Seven West Media. The financial details of the deals were not made public.

Facebook reacted by restricting all news links and all posts from news outlets in Australia. The company also prevented the sharing of news links from Australian publications by anyone anywhere.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” William Easton, Facebook Australia & New Zealand managing director, wrote on the company’s blog. “It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia. With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

Mr. Easton argued that Facebook’s situation is fundamentally different from Google because Facebook users voluntarily post content on the platform whereas Google’s indexing of the internet via its search engine is more “inextricably intertwined” with the news.

In America, conservative critics of Big Tech who howled when former President Trump was banished from social media platforms in January are now crying “we told you so” at the affected news organizations, both the Aussies now and their American brethren in a potential similar future dispute.

Media Research Center vice president Dan Gainor said he wished news organizations that sought to boot contrarian points-of-view from the internet would now lock arms with conservative critics against Big Tech companies following Facebook’s lead but he is not holding his breath.

“Conservatives have been warning of Big Tech censorship for years. The press didn’t just ignore us, they encouraged it. Now, they get silenced, too,” Mr. Gainor said. “Maybe this will convince journalists that Big Tech is too powerful and that free speech is worth fighting for. Unfortunately, I doubt it. The American press wants special protection for them and only them.”

Facebook and Google’s respective reactions to the Australian law — to preemptively prevent the distribution of news and to alternatively work to address the law’s anticipated confines — is being closely watched by Americans seeking to curb Big Tech’s power.

Facebook announced plans last week to limit the distribution of political content to U.S. users and previously told The Washington Times that news publishers would not be exempt from the restrictions.

Mike Davis, founder of the conservative Internet Accountability Project, said Facebook’s actions in Australia showed why U.S. lawmakers should strip Big Tech’s legal-liability protections.

“In an outrageous, mobster-like response, Facebook is extorting Australia to change its law by canceling its news,” Mr. Davis said. “This is yet another egregious example of Big Tech monopolists, like Facebook, abusing their massive power — and further demonstrates why governments around the world must enforce their antitrust laws and end government coddling, like Section 230 immunity.”

Congress has been eyeing changes to the liability protections for content that users post online. The protection is enshrined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The Australian proposal and Big Tech’s reaction to it provoked outrage around the globe.

Timothy Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist widely recognized as the World Wide Web’s inventor, told Australian lawmakers that he fears the new law could render the internet unworkable.

“Specifically, I am concerned that that code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online,” said Mr. Berners-Lee to a Senate committee in Australia scrutinizing the bill.

Google regional managing director Melanie Silva told the same Senate committee that she is most concerned with the proposal requiring “payments for links and snippets.”

“The concept of paying a very small group of website or content creators for appearing purely in our organic search results sets a dangerous precedent for us that presents an unmanageable risk from a product and business-model point of view,” Ms. Silva said to the committee.

Some Australian news publishers say Google misrepresented the law’s intent.

Dan Stinton, managing director of Guardian Australia and New Zealand, which is negotiating a licensing deal through Google’s News Showcase, said Google is not just paying for links and snippets within search but the “entire benefit” that Google receives from engagement with users utilizing its search.

“Google has been prosecuting an argument that they’re being asked to pay for links in Search and that is not the case,” Mr. Stinton said.

“They’re not stealing published content, but I do believe they are using their market power to preference their own businesses to the detriment of publishers and that’s not right,” he said.

This article was based in part on wire-service reports.


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