Why Google might turn search off in Australia

Google says it will have no choice but to disable its search engine in Australia  if the News Media Bargaining Code goes ahead in its current proposed form.

Speaking at a senate inquiry into the code on Friday,  Google Australia managing director Mel Silva said the code breaks the fundamental principles of the web: unrestricted linking between websites.

“If this version of the code were to become law, it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia.

“Now that would be a bad outcome for us, but also for the Australian people media diversity, and the small businesses who use our products every day.

“Withdrawing our services from Australia is the last thing that I or Google want to have happen, especially when there is another way forward.”

Mel Silva, Managing Director for Google Australia, explains why the News Media Bargaining Code is unworkable:

Web’s inventor against the Code

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, in a submission to a Senate inquiry, said that Australia’s proposed law risks “breaching a fundamental principle of the web”.

“The ability to link freely – meaning without limitations regarding the content of the linked site and without monetary fees – is fundamental to how the web operates, how it has flourished till present, and how it will continue to grow in decades to come,” Berners-Lee said.

“There is a right, and often a duty, to make references”, he added, pointing to the significance of journalists and academics linking back to prior work.

So compelling websites to pay up when they share a hyperlink to another site could “would undermine the fundamental principle of the ability to link freely on the web and is inconsistent with how the web has been able to operate over the past three decades”.

“If this precedent were followed elsewhere it could make the web unworkable around the world,” he said.

“I therefore respectfully urge the committee to remove this mechanism from the code,” he concluded.

Who supports the new code?

The mandatory code is supported by Australian government as they want media outlets to get more revenue in the new digitized world. The code mainly benefits big media business and would likely cause small news providers go out of business. Lobbying for the proposed law has been spearheaded by News Corp Australia.

Google’s explanation why the law would break the way Google works?

The Code was originally designed to support the financial future of publishers—an important goal which we’ve committed to support. But the way it tries to achieve this would break the way Google Search works.

Search engines (and the internet as a whole) are built on the ability to link someone to a website for free. You know how it goes. You search for a topic, and the results show up as a series of links and brief snippets of text, giving you an idea of your options before you decide whether to click through and spend your time (and potentially money) with that website or business.

Most businesses welcome the fact that people can find them in search results—and if they don’t, they can choose not to be found. It takes a few clicks to opt out. That’s the way search engines have operated for over two decades. But the Code would throw this system out overnight, forcing Google to pay selected publishers for those links. Not for the article itself: just for the link that pops up in your results, and the brief description underneath it.

The Code would force Google to pay for links to certain publishers, despite the value they already receive in free user traffic from Google.

Right now, no website or search engine pays to connect people to other sites through links. This law would change that, making Google pay to provide links for the first time in our history. If the law requires Google to pay to link people to websites, it’s a slippery slope. After all, if one type of business gets paid for appearing in Search, why shouldn’t others? Going down that route would destroy the business model of any search engine, Google included. And if a search engine has to pay to show links, what’s to stop links elsewhere coming with a price tag, too?

It’s not just Google that has concerns about the Code. Among the groups who made submissions to a recent Senate inquiry expressing concern are the Business Council of Australia, Bundaberg Regional Council, the US Trade Representative, and the inventor of the world wide web. Others have voiced concerns previously.

There are other serious problems remaining with the law—but at the heart of it, it comes down to this: the Code’s rules would dismantle a free and open service that’s been built to serve everyone, and replace it with one where links come at a price, and where the Government would give a handful of news businesses an advantage over everybody else. That puts Google’s business in Australia—and the services we provide more than 19 million Australians—at enormous risk.

You can read Google’s Open letter here in full.