Australia to force Google and Facebook to pay for news and reveal algorithm changes before they whack web traffic

And is willing to fine them hundreds of millions if they don't play nice

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Australian regulators have proposed to compel web giants to divulge forthcoming changes to the algorithms used to present content to users, and to submit to binding arbitration when publishers seek payment for their content.

The draft code, released today, suggests imposing the following "minimum requirements" on Facebook and Google:

  • Give news media businesses at least 28 days' notice of:
    • Algorithm changes likely to materially affect referral traffic to news;
    • Algorithm changes designed to affect ranking of news behind paywalls; and
    • Substantial changes to display and presentation of news, and advertising directly associated with news, on digital platform services;
  • Give news media businesses clear information about the nature and availability of user data collected through users' interactions with news on their services;
  • Publish proposals to appropriately recognise original news on their services;
  • Provide flexible user comment moderation tools for news media businesses; and
  • Allow news media businesses to prevent their news being included on any individual digital platform service.

The draft code also proposes that Australian news publishers can ask Google and Facebook to negotiate over payments for news and can do so either singly or collectively. If negotiations fail, a regulator-appointed arbitrator will make a decision about a payment plan after a final round of offer.

Australia's competition regulator said it chose this approach because it means publishers and web companies determine the value of news. An alternative idea of forcing web companies to pay money into a pool that would be shared with publishers was rejected on grounds it would see governments value news.

The code only applies to Google and Facebook, but publishers have the option of asking regulators to approach other web companies. Australian authorities want the option to add other companies to the code, too.

Proposed penalties for breaking the code could reach AU$10m or ten percent of a web company’s local turnover from the last twelve months. Google and Facebook win many hundreds of millions in local sales, so fines could hit nine figures.

Before you ask: The Register would not be eligible for payments under the plan. We're reporting the news because few other nations have gone down this road, but publishers in many countries have beef with the way their content is used by web giants at a time when advertising revenue is hard to find. Australia's plan is also notable because the nation took a leading role in forming international consensus about rules requiring web platforms to swiftly remove repugnant acts like the 2019 live-streamed mass murders in New Zealand, and succeeded in creating international consensus.

Google has already argued against Australia's plans, saying the traffic it sends to publishers is sufficiently valuable and it doesn't make much from indexing news content. Facebook has shown some willingness to share details of its algorithms.

Australia hopes the code means more money flows to publishers and that they spend that cash on public interest journalism. ®

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