Google Launches Scare Campaign as Australia Requests It Pays Media Outlets

Google is at loggerheads with the Australian Government over a proposal that would force the tech giant to negotiate “fair payment” for Australian news content published on their services.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) News Media Bargaining Code aims to address “power imbalances” between Australian news media outlets and digital platforms like Google and Facebook, in order to “support a sustainable Australian media landscape in the digital age”.

That mandatory code would essentially compel Google and Facebook to share the revenue and advertising money they make from Australian news content with the businesses that publish that content. And predictably, Google has taken umbrage with the idea.

In response to the ACCC’s proposal, Google Australia’s managing director, Mel Silva, wrote an “open letter to Australians”—pinned as a pop-up ad on the homepages of Google and YouTube—wherein she warned that the code would force the tech giant “to provide you with a dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube.”

“The way Aussies search every day on Google is at risk from new regulation,” the letter claimed, with Silva further cautioning consumers that the Code “could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, and would put the free services you use at risk in Australia.”

The ACCC hit back by denouncing several of the letter’s statements as “misinformation”, with chair Rod Sims declaring that “the draft code will allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services.”

Others have accused Google of waging a scare campaign.

“Its letter is part of a campaign designed to scare Australian web users. Don’t fall for it,” said Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer in Media and Communications at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, in a piece for The Conversation. “Google is not the underdog here … [and] claiming its free services for Australians are ‘at risk’ if it has to return a tiny fraction to the companies that actually provide news content—well, I’m sceptical of all the claims in the letter, but this one takes the cake.”

A second prong to this scare campaign came in the form of a letter by Gautam Anand, head of YouTube APAC, which sought to mobilise YouTuber creators and viewers against the Australian Government’s proposal by warning that it would “create an uneven playing field when it comes to who makes money on YouTube”.

That letter, published to the Google Australia Blog on Monday afternoon, claims “all types of Australian creators … from vloggers, to educational creators, to music artists and beyond” will be the ones to suffer from the News Bargaining Code. In a Twitter post accompanying the letter, TeamYouTube—a Twitter account owned by Google—told its 841,000 followers “your voice matters” and encouraged them to contact the ACCC about the proposal, listing the Australian consumer watchdog’s email address in the comments.

“You don’t have to be based in Australia to send your views on the draft code to the ACCC—email them,” the account urged in direct replies to commenters. The Guardian previously reported that the letter itself also included a contact email address for the ACCC, although it appears to have since been removed from the post.

Barnet cast serious doubts over the legitimacy of Google’s arguments, suggested that the company is making a mountain out of a molehill and stoking fear among Australians in order to avoid sharing a portion of its multi-million dollar ad revenue with the country’s media organisations.

“It’s tempting to conclude that Google is simply trying to gaslight its users by sowing doubt about the wisdom of the new regulations—because it doesn’t want to pay,” she wrote.

Google’s handling of the situation has been further criticised by other media figureheads, including Nine Entertainment, who accused the company of misleading Australians about the code, and Bridget Fair, chief executive of Free TV, who said Google was trying to divert attention away from the real issue of paying a fair price for news content.

Facebook has remained relatively quiet on the matter, despite also reportedly disagreeing with the terms of the Australian Government’s proposal.

The News Media Bargaining Code is up for public consultation until 5PM on 28 August, 2020.

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