Australia Pushes for Link Tax to Force Google to Pay to Send Traffic to Media

Australia is pushing for a new link tax law. It would compel services like Google and Facebook to pay a tax to send traffic to media outlets.

When the world went digital, there were certainly some teething issues. Why would people want to send a letter which takes a few days to deliver before receiving a response a week or so later when you could instantly shoot an e-mail to someone? Why would you need to wait two days for a newspaper to be delivered to your door all the while getting your hands filled with ink when you could just go to a website and get your news cleanly and instantly? While we are at it, why would a non-audiophile wait for a record to arrive when an MP3 could instantly be downloaded? From an economics standpoint, the Internet threw off a lot and it required some rethinking to adapt to a much more instant society.

Among the industries affected is the media. It became easier than ever before to access the latest news. In fact, one could access the news in a much bigger variety for free than ever before. Traditional outlets certainly became split on what to do for quite a while. Some simply chose to hunker down and refuse to change, hoping this whole Internet fad thing simply went away. Others chose to go online to varying degrees of success. For many outlets that simply refused to adapt to the more modern era, they simply folded due to revenue losses. For outlets that chose to at least make an effort to go online, a real question became how to retain that old audience and gain new eyes.

For some outlets, the hope is to simply ask their old readers or viewers to visit their website. “For the very latest, you can check out our website” some anchors would say. The hope, of course, is that word of mouth will make up the difference of otherwise lost audience. That might help a little, but there needed to be a better response. Fortunately, Google News is a thing. Simply submit your website and information to Google and they will display your news amongst other large media outlets. Suddenly, with the power of the largest website on the Internet, media outlets had a shot at remaining viable. It became possible that their news could be seen by the larger world. What’s even better is the fact that the price is quite right to get in on the action: free.

Ultimately, Google News had the side benefit of somewhat levelling the playing field as well. Suddenly, small outlets could have their stories featured in search results right up there with the big players. If you are an independent journalist, you too could compete with the big players all the while carving out your niche. Honestly, how could anyone complain with such a fantastic deal?

More recently, it seems that major media outlets did complain. Suddenly, some outlets began to complain that Google was acting pretty much as intended. They were linking to their website, sending them traffic, and helping outlets not only survive, but thrive in these modern times. Some outlets began to try and proclaim that Google was somehow using small snippets and previews without their permission and need to pay license fees for using their material to drive traffic to their websites.

Indeed, just days after Europe passed the near universally condemned link tax law, French lawmakers passed their own version. In response, Google simply complied with the law by deleting snippets from results in France. Publishers responded to the perfectly legal move by calling it “unacceptable“. More recently, French lawmakers, at the behest of major publishers, ruled that Google must post snippets and retroactively pay a license fee to these publishers. Additionally, Google must then negotiate in good faith over license fees. Many speculate that Google will simply do the logical thing and pull out of France.

Of course, for non-European’s, this might sound like an issue a world away. That didn’t stop Canadian outlets from pestering lawmakers in an effort to try and get the ball rolling on a Canadian link tax law. Regulators did say they were monitoring the situation in France, but aren’t really seeing a need to do a knee jerk reaction and do the same thing in Canada at this stage. If you thought that Canada was just a one-off example of a non-European country where publishers are trying to compel lawmakers to pass a link tax law, you’d be wrong.

Australian lawmakers are also trying to pass similar laws. From The Guardian:

Facebook and Google will be forced to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies after the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, instructed the competition watchdog to develop a mandatory code of conduct for the digital giants amid a steep decline in advertising brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

In its response to the landmark digital platforms inquiry in December, the federal government asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to develop a code between media companies and digital platforms including Google and Facebook.

The code was to require the companies to negotiate in good faith on how to pay news media for use of their content, advise news media in advance of algorithm changes that would affect content rankings, favour original source news content in search page results, and share data with media companies.

The code was due to be finalised in November 2020, but after limited success in early negotiations between the platforms and the news industry – and in light of the sharp decline in ad revenue – the government has now asked the ACCC to write a mandatory code.

The mandatory code will have the same elements as the proposed voluntary code, but would also include penalties and binding dispute resolution mechanisms for negotiations between the digital platforms and news businesses. It will also define news content that would be covered by the code, and will encompass services beyond Google search and Facebook’s main platform, such as Instagram and Twitter.

Generally speaking, the reasoning behind the push is pretty much completely logic free. For the first point, sure, COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact to pretty much everyone. The question is, how is this Google’s problem especially through the lens of media outlets seeing a drop in revenue? Secondly, why is this a question about competition given Google is not a media outlet? Really, we could go on forever raising perfectly valid questions about this perspective let alone go over the detrimental impacts such a law would have.

Of course, when it comes to technology, such a fact free move is not exactly a huge surprise. After all, this is the same country that, in 2018, banned encryption. The laws ultimately caused a mass innovation and investment exodus from the country and compelled multinational companies to blacklist Australia as a place to never do business in. The government, for its part, simply shrugged and seemed happy with the arrangement of business fleeing the country. Australia then went even further by using the laws to crack down on journalismviolent crime“. This after repeated expansions into so many other areas of the Internet.

Also, who could forget the proposal of compelling ISPs to spy on users?

So, in light of past behaviour by the government, is it really a surprise that the country is going even further down the anti-technology path? Probably not. This is a country that has a long history of adopting some of the most extreme anti-technology laws around the world. The fact that they are pushing for a link tax now is not entirely surprising here. Still, it does highlight a worrying trend that there are countries outside of Europe pushing for what many consider a policy that will deal across the board pain to media outlets in their respective countries. For everyone’s sake, the hope is that this policy doesn’t continue to spread into other countries as well, thus destroying the symbiotic relationship between search engine and journalist.

(Via TechDirt)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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