Google plays hardball in Australia over new publisher payment law

Note: This was originally written for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Google users in Australia started seeing a warning pop up on their search pages this week: a yellow triangle with an exclamation mark inside it, and a message that said “The way Aussies use Google is at risk.” Those who clicked on the popup were taken to an open letter from Mel Silva, managing director of Google Australia, which warned users about a new Australian law that Silva said “will hurt how Australians use Google Search and YouTube.” According to the Google executive, the proposed legislation, known as the News Media Bargaining Code, “would force us to provide you with a dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube, could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, and would put the free services you use at risk.” Silva said that the new law would force Google to “give an unfair advantage to one group of businesses—news media businesses—over everyone else” because the code would require it to notify publishers about changes to its algorithms. The head of YouTube in Australia also wrote his own post suggesting that paying big publishers for content would mean less money for other creators on the service.

The Australian government didn’t waste much time firing back. The country’s competition commission, which drafted the law after months of investigating anti-competitive behavior by Google and Facebook, released a letter accusing the search company of misstating the facts. According to the commission, Google’s statement contained “misinformation” about the proposed law: the company would not have to charge anyone for free services, it said, and would not be required to share any user data with news businesses unless it chose to do so. The proposed code would “allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services,” it said, and would “address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook.” Free TV Australia, an industry body that represents the country’s over-the-air networks, called Google’s letter and marketing campaign “a cynical ploy” designed to “mislead and frighten” Australians.

So where does the truth lie in this back-and-forth? One thing that seems obvious is that Google sees what’s happening in Australia as a line in the sand, and is fighting with whatever tools it has, including a PR campaign involving its users, to soften the proposed legislation (discussion continues on the law until August 28, the commission has said). Just before the code came out, Google announced that it was going to pay publishers in certain countries, including Australia, but those payments have reportedly been suspended. The search giant also fought against legislation requiring it to pay publishers in Spain, Germany, and France, but it may be even more determined in Australia: the regulations in those other countries are based on copyright law, whereas Australia’s is a product of antitrust, which has the potential to affect Google in much more serious ways than copyright (US regulators are also currently investigating the search company for anti-competitive behavior). For its part, Facebook seems to be keeping its head down and saying as little as possible.

At this point, both sides of the negotiating table in Australia could be accused of ratcheting up the rhetoric. Google mentions the potential threat to YouTube multiple times in its letter, not to mention the entire blog post from the head of the service in Australia, perhaps in part because it knows that YouTube creators will raise a stink on social media (which they have). And yet, as one news article points out, the draft code never even mentions YouTube—it is focused on Google’s search and news products. It’s also a little ridiculous for a company that has revenues of more than $160 billion to suggest that paying publishers pennies for their news articles will leave its pockets empty. The commission, meanwhile, makes a point of saying that a healthy press “is essential to a well-functioning democracy,” but doesn’t mention that the code would primarily benefit billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, who controls a significant chunk of the country’s media industry, and that the proposed law only applies to media organizations that can show revenues of more than $150,000.

The idea that Google has made billions by “stealing” content from news publishers is an appealing one for media companies, and one that Murdoch has been pushing for a decade (City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis called the proposed code “pure Murdoch protectionism”). So the idea that Google might be forced to pay news outlets has a certain taste of sweet revenge. And yet, rapacious owners—including the hedge funds that control much of the US industry—have done at least as much to injure the business models of their papers as Google or Facebook have. How does putting more money in the pockets of the Murdoch family or the Packer family improve the overall news landscape in Australia? That’s something the competition commission might want to address instead of trying to paint Google as the sole source of the country’s problems.

Here’s more on Google and paying publishers:

Misdiagnosis: An editorial published by Bloomberg argues that forcing Google and other platforms to pay for news articles is the wrong solution to what ails the industry. “Journalism’s business model wasn’t broken by digital platforms. The internet unbundled many of the services—classified advertising, job postings, movie listings and so on—that newspapers once provided, while eroding the local or regional monopolies that made them so profitable. It offered consumers a wealth of free news and opinion and gave advertisers options and audiences that traditional publishers haven’t been able to match. It’s true that Facebook and Google have capitalized on these trends, but they hardly caused them.”

Patronage: In a feature article in 2018, CJR looked at the history of tensions between Google and the media industry in a number of countries, including Spain, where Google removed the entire nation from its Google News index after the country implemented legislation that would have forced it to pay publishers. For more than a decade, the search giant has balked at paying news outlets directly, and instead has focused on efforts like the Google News Initiative, which the company says is designed to give away $300 million in grants and other funding to publishers and others in the industry. Facebook launched its own similar effort, which it calls the Facebook Journalism Project, in 2017 and promised that it too would spend $300 million on grants and other funding for news entities.

The Spanish case: Researchers who looked at the news experience in Spain following Google’s departure from the country found that news consumption fell afterwards, although the impact was more severe for small publishers rather than large ones. Overall news consumption fell by 20 percent, they found, and traffic to non-Google news sources fell by about 10 percent. “This decrease is concentrated around small publishers while large publishers do not see significant changes in their overall traffic,” the researchers said. “We further find that when Google News shuts down, its users are able to replace some but not all of the types of news they previously read. Post-shutdown, they read less breaking news, hard news, and news that is not well covered on their favorite news publishers.”

Other notable stories:

Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South, and Central Asia, has filed a criminal complaint with the cyber unit of the Delhi police, accusing journalist Awesh Tiwari and a number of social media users of threatening her and defaming her, according to a copy of the complaint that was shared on social media. The complaint alleges that Das received threats following the publication of a Wall Street Journal article that accused her of stepping in to prevent Facebook’s hate speech rules from being used against content posted by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Das to withdraw her complaint against Tiwari.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed NBC News for a tweet (since removed) that questioned her loyalty to Joe Biden because she used her time during the Democratic National Convention to second the nomination of Bernie Sanders. As Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, it is standard procedure to have nominations seconded, and she was asked to do so for Sanders. NBC later apologized and said that it had taken the tweet down, but Ocasio-Cortez noted that the network waited several hours to correct its “obvious and blatantly misleading tweet,” which she said had “sparked an enormous amount of hatred and vitriol.” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said it was an example of “how not to apologize.”

The New York Times announced something it is calling the Headway Initiative, which it said will be “a team of journalists to investigate global and national challenges” focusing on economic, social, health, infrastructural and environmental problems. Each year, the team will produce ten to twelve “deeply researched, visually ambitious, data-rich projects that look beyond the 24-hour news and election cycles,” the paper said, along with “an online public square, focused on community-building, transparency, engagement, debate and data dissemination.” The project is being financed by philanthropic donations, the Times said.

For CJR’s Journalism Crisis Project newsletter, Lauren Harris interviewed Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism, who has been studying the disintegration of journalism’s traditional business model for a number of years, and mapping losses of physical newsrooms across the United States. Among other things, Abernathy talks about “ghost newspapers,” a phrase she used to describe publications that have lost so many newsroom employees that they are just a shadow of their former selves, and their “reporting abilities are drastically diminished.”

In an interview with Variety, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that he has spent months “fighting a never-ending assault to take us off the air,” and denied that he spreads racist ideology on his program, despite repeated comments that appear to mimic white supremacist arguments about immigrants and others. Carlson also told the magazine that he is fortunate to have “the support of the Murdochs,” namely Rupert Murdoch and his son, Lachlan Murdoch, who run Fox News Channel parent Fox Corp., despite the fact that his program has reportedly been losing advertisers because of its content.

NPR’s radio ratings have fallen sharply since the coronavirus pandemic began, Nieman Lab reports, primarily because most of radio listening takes place in cars that are commuting to work, something few people are doing. But NPR says it is reaching more people digitally than ever before: while radio listening has fallen by 22 percent, the number of users who listen to or read NPR content online or through smart appliances has climbed 10 percent to 57 million a week. Unique visitors to the website have climbed by 94 percent, NPR said, and smart speaker streams and on-demand audio increased 29 percent.

Digiday profiles Meredith Kopit Levien, who recently became the youngest chief executive at the New York Times Co. Former Atlantic owner David Bradley, who employed Levien at a consulting firm he ran, called her “a rocket ship launched vertically up through the ranks of the company.” Among other things, the profile describes what appears to have been a power struggle in the senior ranks of the company, which resulted in Kinsey Wilson leaving and Levien becoming the chief operating officer of the newspaper publisher.

Bloomberg writes about the Liaison Office, the Chinese government entity that controls the media ecosystem in that country, including newspapers, broadcasting, magazines, and book publishers. “The entity also owns at least 30 publishing houses and brands, one of the biggest commercial printing companies in greater China and 60 retail bookstores in Hong Kong and Macau. It publishes school textbooks, runs an online news outlet with almost 250,000 Facebook followers and distributes pro-Beijing magazines to more than 500 secondary schools in Hong Kong.”

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