‘Free services at risk’: Google has published an open letter attacking Australia’s effort to force it to pay news publishers for content

Google offices
Photo by Olly Curtis/Future via Getty Images
  • Google’s Australian managing director, Mel Silva, has authored an open letter slamming the ACCC’s effort to force the company to pay local publishers to display their content.
  • In it, Silva warns that the new code would force Google to “provide users with a dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube”.
  • “We deeply believe in the importance of news to society,” Silva said, saying the company would have more to announce in the coming days.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

After remaining relatively circumspect about the Australian government’s effort to compel them to pay media publishers for displaying their content, Google has come out swinging against the proposal.

In an open letter to the company’s local users, Australian managing director Mel Silva warned that the digital platform rules proposed by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) would “hurt how Australians use Google Search and YouTube”.

“A proposed law, 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 in Australia,” Silva wrote.

Under the code proposed by the ACCC, platforms like Google and Facebook would be compelled to pay a “fair” price for media content and be more transparent about how their algorithms work and how user data is collected.

Right now, Australia is on the very bleeding edge of a global dispute between news publishers and the tech titans. Publishers the world over have seen a long-term collapse in revenue, as advertising profits have increasingly been diverted to the owners of digital platforms like Facebook and Google.

In the open letter, Silva flags several areas of concern for Google. Core among them, she says, is that the ACCC’s regulation will force Google to prioritise legacy media over small and independent creators using the company’s platforms.

“You’ve always relied on Google Search and YouTube to show you what’s most relevant and helpful to you,” Silva wrote.

“We could no longer guarantee that under this law. The law would force us to give an unfair advantage to one group of businesses – news media businesses – over everyone else who has a website, YouTube channel or small business.”

Toward the bottom of Silva’s open letter is the threat that Google’s free services may no longer be able to operate in Australia if the code goes ahead.

“We deeply believe in the importance of news to society,” Silva said.

“We partner closely with Australian news media businesses — we already pay them millions of dollars and send them billions of free clicks every year. We’ve offered to pay more to license content.

“But rather than encouraging these types of partnerships, the law is set up to give big media companies special treatment and to encourage them to make enormous and unreasonable demands that would put our free services at risk.”

A link to the open letter currently appears on the Google homepage, along with text reading, “The way Aussies search every day on Google is at risk from new Government regulation.”

It isn’t an empty threat. The European Union and several individual European countries have in the past attempted to force Google to pay publishers for displaying their content – with generally bad results. For example, the Spanish government’s effort to introduce a ‘link tax’ led to Google pulling its News product from the country altogether in 2014.

In addition to Silva’s open letter, local YouTube boss Gautam Anand published a blog specifically discussing the possible consequences of the ACCC’s code on the video platform, arguing it “prioritises the traditional news industry over smaller creators of content.”

Much like the broader Google response, YouTube’s argument against the code of conduct is that it represents an effort by large publishers and media companies to obtain an unfair advantage through law.

“The imbalances created by this proposed law could potentially affect all types of Australian creators, far beyond those who focus on news: from vloggers, to educational creators, to music artists and beyond,” said Anand.

Whether or not you consider that an accurate read on what the government and the ACCC have set out to do, there’s certainly more coming.

“You’ll hear more from us in the coming days — stay tuned,” said Silva.