Google fights back against proposed Australian news legislation

The company is warning Australians the new law would worsen their experiences across Google and YouTube and potentially undermine their privacy.

Close-up of a news stand with magazines and newspapers.
Michael Ochs Archives/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Google this morning published an open letter, signed by Google Australia managing director Mel Silva, warning that legislation proposing to force the company to pay for news content could threaten its search services. Google says the legislation, called the News Media Bargaining Code, would force the company to provide a “dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube” to Australian consumers.

The legislation, proposed last month by Australia’s competition regulator, seeks to force Google and Facebook to pay news outlets and media groups in exchange for carrying their content. The proposal is similar to a law that passed in France earlier this year.

In a separate blog post, Gautam Anand, Head of YouTube APAC (Asia-Pacific), warned creators that the new law would “have a negative impact on the creator ecosystem in Australia.” Anand’s post worries that the legislature would prioritize the traditional news industry over smaller content creators, providing an unfair advantage to them.

The actual impact of the legislation won’t be clear until it’s passed, but Google’s open letter is an attempt to get Australians to apply pressure on legislators to reconsider the proposed law, and an effort to prevent it having to bow to it. How much of Google's motivation comes down to providing Australians with the best experience online and how much is down to its fear of the legislation setting a worrying (and potentially costly) precedent is debatable.

More power for news companies, less for Google — Both Silva and Anand forecast dramatic issues for Google’s Australian user base if the new law is passed. Silva calls the law’s demands “enormous and unreasonable.”

For YouTube users, Anand warns that the company “may be obligated” to give preferential treatment to large news publishers. He says this would create an “uneven playing field” for monetary compensation on the platform.

Both Silva and Anand focus on abstract data protection for users; they warn that the new law would allow big news outlets to “seek access to data about viewers’ use” of their platforms. They say there’s no way for them to protect this data once it’s been handed over to news organizations.

Google also focuses its letters on how very “free” its platforms are and the ways the new law would threaten this freedom.

Google's vested interest — It’s clear Google feels strongly that its users should oppose the News Media Bargaining code. What’s less apparent, though, is how factual the company’s claims about the likely effects of the legislation are.

Rod Sims, chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said explicitly that Google’s open letter “contains misinformation,” the Financial Times reports.

“Google will not be required to charge Australians for the use of its free services such as Google Search and YouTube unless it chooses to do so,” Sims said. “Google will not be required to share any additional user data with Australian news businesses unless it chooses to do so.”

Don’t tell Google what to do — Google has faced similar legislation in other countries, and at times the company has taken serious measures against being told how to handle its platforms.

Back in 2014, lawmakers in Spain attempted to introduce legislation requiring all news aggregators to pay news services to re-post content. Rather than change its business models to incorporate these new fees, Google completely shut down its news operations in Spain.

After more than a decade of on-and-off fighting, France ruled in April of this year that Google does need to pay news outlets for articles it re-posts. Google has thus far been uncharacteristically cooperative with this decision. Google looks more likely to pull out of Australia than capitulate if it comes down to it. That could change the Australian media scene substantially and set a different sort of precedent.