Google has deployed 'father of the internet' Vint Cerf to slam Australia's proposed news media bargaining code

  • Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf has penned a blog post slamming Australia’s proposed media bargaining code as against the principles of a free and open internet.
  • He writes that the ACCC’s understanding of how Google displays content is “not how search engines work, or should work, nor how people use them.”
  • Cerf is best known as a “father of the internet”, due to his co-development of the vital TCP/IP protocol suite in the 1970s.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

It seems Google still has a few arrows in its quiver in its war against Australia’s proposed news media bargaining code. This time, it’s one of the big guns: “father of the internet” Vint Cerf.

Cerf, who serves as Google’s ‘chief internet evangelist’ and is best known for co-developing the vital TCP/IP protocol suite in the 1970s, came out swinging in a blog post against Australia’s plans to compel internet platforms to pay local news publishers for displaying their content.

In the post, on Google’s official blog, Cerf derides Australia’s regulatory effort as incompatible with the principles of the open and free internet.

“As it is currently framed, both the premise of the code and the approach it sets out are deeply flawed,” Cerf writes. “Digital platforms do not owe publishers compensation for the emergence of an internet-based economy.”

“It would introduce bias into systems that were designed to be fair, and undercut a democratic internet where people compete not on their political influence, but on the value of their content,” he goes on to say.

The internet pioneer further describes the code as “an intervention that would distort access to information and disadvantage Australians who rely on Google to share their voice and run their business.”

Between Google and Facebook, the two companies which have in particular raised the ire of Australian publishers and media companies, it is Google which has mounted the most stringent and sustained opposition to the proposed code.

Most of this opposition to date has come via Google’s local managing director, Mel Silva. In a post on Tuesday, Silva slammed the current state of negotiations, saying the provisions of the bargaining code in its current form are one-sided, unworkable in the context of the modern internet, and “technically impossible”.

Google also mounted an offensive via its video platform YouTube – attempting to conscript both local and international content creators into opposing the code on the basis that it would affect the way YouTube works.

But Cerf’s opposition represents a loftier intervention from the tech behemoth – bringing into the more philosophical realm concerned with the task and purpose of the internet itself.

“It would be no more reasonable to try to return to an environment where publishers’ revenues were protected than it would be to expect Australians to go back to the Yellow Pages, Encyclopedia Britannica or Microfiche for their sources of information,” his blog post reads.

“The world has changed. Yet in advocating a code that serves their interests only, certain Australian news businesses are effectively arguing for the Australian Government to turn back time — to make the open internet significantly less open and its business models dramatically less diverse.”

He argues that the ACCC’s focus on how Google displays content from local publishers is faulty, as it’s “not how search engines work, or should work, nor how people use them.”

This is not an argument exclusively mounted by Google, which obviously has a very serious interest in not bleeding cash to publishers.

Writing in The Conversation, University of South Australia lecturer Damien Spry also argues that the way the ACCC talks about search, social media and online news is not fit for purpose, and relies on antiquated notions of ‘display’ which aren’t compatible with contemporary means of monetisation like programmatic advertising, which delivers targeted ads based on a user’s personal ad profile rather than the content they’re looking at.

Google dominates the programmatic ad space, and Spry instead suggests legislation targeting that market might be more effective, and fairer.

“The ACCC code proposes remuneration for publishers based on a negotiated value of news content, but the value of news for online advertisers isn’t derived from the content as much as the targeted audience,” he writes.

Broader implications for Google

Cerf’s participation in the clash speaks not so much to Australia’s specific legislation as to the possible implications for its position in the global market, and what it could mean for its broader company vision.

The evangelist makes clear that Google does not oppose regulation in principle.

“Around the world, as the internet expands and evolves for the better in areas like health and education, it also poses new challenges,” he writes. “Governments are rightly seeking to design sensible rules that can keep pace — and, where needed, keep people from harm.”

But Google has taken drastic action against other jurisdictions which have sought to clip a ticket on Google’s services.

In Spain, where the government in 2014 sought to impose a ‘link tax’ on the tech giant, Spanish publishers are still absent from Google News, and the service is unavailable altogether within the country.

Regardless of how this battle between tech platforms and Australian publishers pans out, one thing is abundantly clear: the proposed bargaining code has broad implications for Google’s approach, and they will fight tooth and nail against it, from all angles.

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