Australian Government Slams Google For Blocking Local Content

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Users in Australia complain after Google blocks local websites, after Australia seeks to force tech firms to pay for news content

The Australian Government is not happy with Google, after it conducted an ‘experiment’ due to an incoming law forcing tech firms to pay local publishers for news they utilise on their platforms.

Google’s ‘experiment’ has reportedly seen the search engine giant block Australian news websites for some users, although the firm says it is only for a small number of users (thought to be just one percent of Aussie users).

The Guardian newspaper reported that Google’s experiment had blindsided online news consumers and media outlets this week, with Google removing Australian media outlets such as the ABC, Nine, the Guardian and others from its search results.

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Paying publishers

What is making people upset down under is that users were not informed of the change, or advised how to find news articles when searching, with some reporting they initially believed it was an issue only affecting them.

The Guardian reported that people impact by the experiment can get around the block by searching in a private browser window, such as in incognito mode in Google Chrome.

But those in the know should not be overly surprised at the development.

This is because Australia is pressing ahead with a new law to force big name tech firms to pay local publishers for any news content they utilise on their respective platforms.

The legislation is currently being reviewed by an Australian Senate committee, and a vote is expected early this year.

Tech opposition

The move is being strongly opposed by Google and Facebook, despite Australia touting the new law as a way to protect independent journalism.

It comes after Google in June 2020 announced the ‘News Showcase’ scheme, which would see news publishers in Australia, Brazil, and Germany starting to be compensated for the news they produce.

CEO Sundar Pichai pledged $1 billion (£778m) over three years to the scheme, which will be rolled out worldwide.

Google in November additionally signed copyright agreements with six French newspapers and magazines, including Le Monde and Le Figaro.

However this Google scheme to compensate news publishers has been ‘paused’ in Australia, due its to disagreement with this new Australian law change.

Facebook in September also bluntly warned Aussie users it will prevent them sharing local and international news, if Australia presses ahead with this law.

Facebook has previously labelled the Aussie law as ‘bad legislation’ and said the law “defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector.”

Google has also previously expressed its opposition to this Australia legislation and used its search web page in Australia to warn local users that it would harm their ability to search.

But Australia has not backed down, with the country’s top antitrust regulator, ACCC Chair Rod Sims, saying that it was tech firms call if they choose not to comply.

Government condemnation

So Google is blocking certain news websites as an ‘experiment’ should hardly come as a surprise, but the Australian government is not happy and has urged Google to focus on paying for Australian content instead of blocking it.

“The digital giants should focus on paying for original content, not blocking it. That’s my message to those digital giants,” said Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

Another government minister also waded into the debate, namely Australian communications minister, Paul Fletcher, who said the action highlighted issues with the market power of tech companies.

“This conduct by Google … I think goes very much to the kind of market power issues which this news media bargaining code is designed to deal with, and I think underlines the public policy importance of the government engaging on this,” he reportedly told ABC RN on Thursday.

Some will feel there is little doubt that Google’s ‘experiment’ is a warning shot to Australian authorities on the matter.

But Google’s actions under the new Australian law could be illegal, and it could face fines of up to $10m.

This is because the new Aussie law requires Google not to differentiate between news businesses signed up to the code and those not, as a means of avoiding entering into negotiations with the news outlets signed up to the code, the Guardian reported.

However, Google could just potentially remove all news from search results altogether for that country, as it did in Spain back in 2014, when it tried to charge for content.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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