Australia to make Google and Facebook disclose ranking algorithms and pay for local content

Months of negotiation on voluntary code of conduct didn’t make progress

Australia will force social media companies to pay for content shared on their networks and disclose details of the algorithms that determine what their users see.

The decision comes after Australia conducted a Digital Platforms Inquiry that in 2019 delivered a final report concluding that Google and Facebook have distorted local media and advertising markets in ways that make it hard for publishers to monetise their content.

The inquiry called for development of a voluntary code of conduct that would see some cash flow from social networks to publishers but the consultation process to develop that code appears not to have gone well. Which brings us today, when Australian Treasurer* Josh Frydenberg wrote: “On the fundamental issue of payment for content, which the code was seeking to resolve, there was no meaningful progress and, in the words of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ‘no expectation of any even being made’.”

Out with the negotiators, then, and in with the lawyers to draft some laws.

Frydenberg said we can expect the following:

The code will include a number of provisions, including those related to value exchange and revenue sharing; transparency of ranking algorithms; access to user data; presentation of news content; and the penalties and sanctions for non-compliance.

The Treasurer noted that in two other nations that have tried similar laws – Spain and France - Google respectively closed its News service and refused to comply. Australia will proceed regardless.

“We are not seeking to protect traditional media companies from the rigour of competition or technological disruption,” he said. “Rather, to create a level playing field where market power is not misused, companies get a fair go and there is appropriate compensation for the production of original news content.”

What’s going on here?

Frydenberg’s action is both playing to his base and an attempt to restructure the market.

The decision plays to his base because the Liberal Party of Australia of which he is a member is the nation’s conservative party. As such it is generally in favor at Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, which dominates the Australian media market.

News has spent years arguing that digital giants must be reined in even as it decided to paywall its established mastheads while also operating a free-to-access volume-oriented news site. Frydenberg will not get much criticism from News Limited for this decision.

News will get some cover from the decision. The company is in trouble in Australia. Its pay television arm is bleeding and an attempt to create a Netflix-for-sport has under-performed and is now bereft of new content thanks to the novel coronavirus. The Australian, the national broadsheet that was Rupert Murdoch’s first big bet, has lost money for years. The company also recently stopped the presses on numerous local newspapers, citing revenue downturns caused by COVID-19. Now it can point to government action about internet giants as evidence its woes are not all of its own making.

(That News has not simply made itself scraper-proof with heavy use of robots.txt and other means, and is therefore trying to benefit from social media aggregation even as it criticises it, is seldom mentioned in polite company.)

Australia's other big publishers are also bleeding. So between News' overt criticism of Google and Facebook, other media companies' quieter lobbying and ongoing concern about Big Tech's tax arrangements, there will be no political downside to this decision.

The attempt to restructure the market is a reaction is more nuanced. Frydenberg points out that Google has 47 percent online advertising market share and that plenty of that derives from its stewardship of Android.

Left unmentioned is that Australia’s media fundamentally misunderstood the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Publishers’ early online efforts focused on content distribution rather than converting their advertising operations into online properties. The likes of eBay, Google and Facebook feasted on the vacuum created as consumers realised that search-driven classified advertisements available 24x7 was a rather better experience than poring through piles of printed classified ads. Australian publishers did manage to retain some real estate and car advertising, and have done well with those ventures. But nowhere near well enough to offset the fields in which they were outplayed.

Frydenberg’s announcement also contains no mention of changing laws for the video streaming operators. Australian broadcasters are required to produce local content. Funds that flow to local productions have helped to create a local industry capable of hosting productions like The Matrix trilogy and The Lego Movie. While Frydenberg repeatedly uses the term “level playing field” in today’s announcement, the likes of Netflix and Disney+ have so far escaped regulation. Today is therefore all about the optics of big bad Google and Facebook making life hard for plucky news-hounds - even as Australia's government pursues a News Limited journalist for having broken a story about plans for expanded domestic activities for the nation's signals intelligence agency.

How will the social giants react? In their submissions to the inquiry Facebook and Google both said they offer a way for publishers to grow their audiences and find new revenue sources. Both also pointed to programs that aim to assist and/or fund publishers. However your humble hack was in 2018 invited to a Google seminar about that effort. Speaking to an audience of consumer and trade magazine publishers and born-digital mastheads, the company explained its intention to mostly assist community news. The rest of us were left to fend for ourselves and reminded that Google shares revenue with publishers that host its ads. The sandwiches were nice, though.

Australia’s legislation is due in July. Hopefully by then it’s less of a welcome distraction from a certain virus! ®

* Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Secretary of the Treasury

Other stories you might like

  • End of the road for biz living off free G Suite legacy edition
    Firms accustomed to freebies miffed that web giant's largess doesn't last

    After offering free G Suite apps for more than a decade, Google next week plans to discontinue its legacy service – which hasn't been offered to new customers since 2012 – and force business users to transition to a paid subscription for the service's successor, Google Workspace.

    "For businesses, the G Suite legacy free edition will no longer be available after June 27, 2022," Google explains in its support document. "Your account will be automatically transitioned to a paid Google Workspace subscription where we continue to deliver new capabilities to help businesses transform the way they work."

    Small business owners who have relied on the G Suite legacy free edition aren't thrilled that they will have to pay for Workspace or migrate to a rival like Microsoft, which happens to be actively encouraging defectors. As noted by The New York Times on Monday, the approaching deadline has elicited complaints from small firms that bet on Google's cloud productivity apps in the 2006-2012 period and have enjoyed the lack of billing since then.

    Continue reading
  • It's a crime to use Google Analytics, watchdog tells Italian website
    Because data flows into the United States, not because of that user interface

    Another kicking has been leveled at American tech giants by EU regulators as Italy's data protection authority ruled against transfers of data to the US using Google Analytics.

    The ruling by the Garante was made yesterday as regulators took a close look at a website operator who was using Google Analytics. The regulators found that the site collected all manner of information.

    So far, so normal. Google Analytics is commonly used by websites to analyze traffic. Others exist, but Google's is very much the big beast. It also performs its analysis in the USA, which is what EU regulators have taken exception to. The place is, after all, "a country without an adequate level of data protection," according to the regulator.

    Continue reading
  • Google recasts Anthos with hitch to AWS Outposts
    If at first you don't succeed, change names and try again

    Google Cloud's Anthos on-prem platform is getting a new home under the search giant’s recently announced Google Distributed Cloud (GDC) portfolio, where it will live on as a software-based competitor to AWS Outposts and Microsoft Azure Stack.

    Introduced last fall, GDC enables customers to deploy managed servers and software in private datacenters and at communication service provider or on the edge.

    Its latest update sees Google reposition Anthos on-prem, introduced back in 2020, as the bring-your-own-server edition of GDC. Using the service, customers can extend Google Cloud-style management and services to applications running on-prem.

    Continue reading
  • Google: How we tackled this iPhone, Android spyware
    Watching people's every move and collecting their info – not on our watch, says web ads giant

    Spyware developed by Italian firm RCS Labs was used to target cellphones in Italy and Kazakhstan — in some cases with an assist from the victims' cellular network providers, according to Google's Threat Analysis Group (TAG).

    RCS Labs customers include law-enforcement agencies worldwide, according to the vendor's website. It's one of more than 30 outfits Google researchers are tracking that sell exploits or surveillance capabilities to government-backed groups. And we're told this particular spyware runs on both iOS and Android phones.

    We understand this particular campaign of espionage involving RCS's spyware was documented last week by Lookout, which dubbed the toolkit "Hermit." We're told it is potentially capable of spying on the victims' chat apps, camera and microphone, contacts book and calendars, browser, and clipboard, and beam that info back to base. It's said that Italian authorities have used this tool in tackling corruption cases, and the Kazakh government has had its hands on it, too.

    Continue reading
  • Makers of ad blockers and browser privacy extensions fear the end is near
    Overhaul of Chrome add-ons set for January, Google says it's for all our own good

    Special report Seven months from now, assuming all goes as planned, Google Chrome will drop support for its legacy extension platform, known as Manifest v2 (Mv2). This is significant if you use a browser extension to, for instance, filter out certain kinds of content and safeguard your privacy.

    Google's Chrome Web Store is supposed to stop accepting Mv2 extension submissions sometime this month. As of January 2023, Chrome will stop running extensions created using Mv2, with limited exceptions for enterprise versions of Chrome operating under corporate policy. And by June 2023, even enterprise versions of Chrome will prevent Mv2 extensions from running.

    The anticipated result will be fewer extensions and less innovation, according to several extension developers.

    Continue reading
  • FTC urged to probe Apple, Google for enabling ‘intense system of surveillance’
    Ad tracking poses a privacy and security risk in post-Roe America, lawmakers warn

    Democrat lawmakers want the FTC to investigate Apple and Google's online ad trackers, which they say amount to unfair and deceptive business practices and pose a privacy and security risk to people using the tech giants' mobile devices.

    US Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and House Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA) requested on Friday that the watchdog launch a probe into Apple and Google, hours before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, clearing the way for individual states to ban access to abortions. 

    In the days leading up to the court's action, some of these same lawmakers had also introduced data privacy bills, including a proposal that would make it illegal for data brokers to sell sensitive location and health information of individuals' medical treatment.

    Continue reading
  • Google offers $118m to settle gender discrimination lawsuit
    Don't even think about putting LaMDA on the compensation committee

    Google has promised to cough up $118 million to settle a years-long gender-discrimination class-action lawsuit that alleged the internet giant unfairly pays men more than women.

    The case, launched in 2017, was led by three women, Kelly Ellis, Holly Pease, and Kelli Wisuri, who filed a complaint alleging the search giant hires women in lower-paying positions compared to men despite them having the same qualifications. Female staff are also less likely to get promoted, it was claimed.

    Gender discrimination also exists within the same job tier, too, the complaint stated. Google was accused of paying women less than their male counterparts despite them doing the same work. The lawsuit was later upgraded to a class-action status when a fourth woman, Heidi Lamar, joined as a plaintiff. The class is said to cover more than 15,000 people.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022