Here’s Why That Open Letter Plastered All Over Google Today Isn’t Telling The Whole Story

If you opened Google today, you probably spotted very clickable, slightly alarming little doodle: a link to an open letter, which claims new draft legislation will squeeze Australian users to pay more for its services.

The open letter is an unusually public response to a piece of government legislation that could change the way news websites operate in Australia.

The search engine giant claims it’s a crisis in the making. Heaps of journalists, plus Australia’s consumer watchdog, disagree. Also, Facebook is involved.

Here’s everything need to know.

Judge Judy Laptop GIFs | Tenor

What the hell is going on?

Yeah, we know, it’s a lot.

Before the internet, people would almost always pay for news. Take newspapers, for example. Nowadays, fewer and fewer people do so, which is causing a serious revenue problem for news organisations.

The government’s now trying to introduce legislation that would make Google and Facebook pay media companies for including the news in search results.

The thinking is that if Google profits so much off people searching for free news, and if Facebook profits so much off people sharing and commenting on free news, then they should pay a small amount to the people who actually broke that news in the first place.

Some estimates reckon the two companies will be forced to pay up to $1 billion annually, if the legislation goes ahead.

Exactly how much should be paid to each individual news website would be determined on a case-by-case basis through a bargaining process. If no agreement is reached between a media company and Google/Facebook, the ACCC would break the stalemate by choosing what it believes to be the fairer of the two proposals.

As it stands, no news publication can survive without a website, and no news website can get any serious traffic without appearing in Google search results and without publishing on Facebook. Because of this, a huge amount of Aussie news outlets are beholden to these two platforms and their secret algorithms.

The government already asked media companies, Google and Facebook to put aside their differences and voluntarily reach some kind of agreement late last year. That didn’t happen, which is why we’re now at the point where the government’s looking to legislate a mandatory code instead.

Important, legislation will also make Google and Facebook tell media organisations when they update their algorithms, so that they don’t get caught off-guard and lose their traffic and revenue. It’s this last part that’s being misconstrued as the government forcing Google to share our data.

The media’s position

The union representing Aussie journos and other media workers is totally on-board with the plan, but says it should even go further.

The Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance says it’s about time news websites get compensated for providing so much essential content on Google and Facebook, with MEAA Media President Marcus Strom calling the legislation “a great first step.”

“For nearly two decades Google and Facebook have built enormous fortunes off the back of aggregating content that others have made and others have paid for,” he said.

But the MEAA also noted only certain websites will be affected by changes, with websites needing a revenue of at least $150,000 per year to be eligible.

“We are concerned, for instance, that many of the new regional media outlets formed this year during the COVID-19 crisis could be excluded – and these innovative outlets are the organisations that need the most support,” Strom added.

Google’s position

This brings us to that open letter Google published today.

In the letter, Google says informing news organisations about algorithm changes would allow them to “artificially inflate” their Google ranking compared to non-news websites.

The company’s claims that the legislation would mean dramatically worse” search results seem dramatic when the legislation is only talking about supporting news websites, and not restructuring the internet as we know it.

They also made very vague claims about your data being at risk, which have been rejected by the ACCC.

“This law wouldn’t just impact the way Google and YouTube work with news media businesses — it would impact all of our Australian users, so we wanted to let you know,” Mel Silva, Google Australia’s managing director, said in the open letter.

“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to get this proposal changed so we can protect how Search and YouTube work for you in Australia and continue to build constructive partnerships with news media businesses — not choose one over the other.”

The company says it’s instead keen on supporting news websites through other means, such as the Google News Initiative.

The ACCC’s position

The ACCC, which has been tasked with drafting the code, reckons Google’s open letter contains “misinformation”.

It says Google won’t have to share any user data with news organisations if it doesn’t want to, and that the clause about algorithm updates has been misconstrued.

It also took issue with Google’s repeated use of the phrasing “free services”, which implies the legislation could make Google a paid service in future (it absolutely won’t).

“We wanted a model that would address this bargaining power imbalance and result in fair payment for content, which avoided unproductive and drawn-out negotiations, and wouldn’t reduce the availability of Australian news on Google and Facebook,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims previously said

“We believe our proposed draft code achieves these purposes.”

Now what?

The ACCC will continue to consult with groups involved in the debate, including Google, until the end of August. You can have your say here.

Shortly after, the code will be finalised and is expected to be legislated into action.

Regardless of the outcome, there’s no need to stress. Google won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon.