A New Australian Law Is the Wrong Answer to Big Tech

Google and Facebook are too powerful, but monetization won’t solve the core problems

Image: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

The Australian government is currently on track to pass a law that would require the largest online platforms to pay local media whenever they publish material from an article on their sites, or even link out to a news story. It’s the latest sign that the nation is willing to go to war with the platform behemoths in defense of its media industry, regardless of the cost.

The proposed regulation, called the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, would require social media platforms to negotiate with local media in order to use their content. For instance, whenever Google publishes headlines and summaries on Google News, Google would have to pay a small sum to the newspapers or magazines listed.

Platforms would also have to pay whenever users interact with that content, or when they simply link to a news article.

There is merit in forcing powerful platforms like Google and Facebook to the negotiating table over their treatment of the media. The journalism industry has after all been ravaged by the two companies’ duopoly on digital advertising. But forcing any platform that generates more than $150,000 AUD in annual revenue and hosts links to a piece of news to pay up, as this proposal would, is deeply problematic. This would mean that as I write this piece, simply linking to an Australian news outlet for context could result in Medium, the tech platform that owns OneZero, being charged for the privilege. (The precise cost of a link remains unclear.)

The Australian government released a draft of the law in early 2020, which put Facebook and Google on the offensive — it set them scrambling to convince regulators that such a law would make their platforms unworkable in the country without significant changes. The legislation was finalized in December 2020, and is expected to be voted into law this year. Google has turned up its rhetoric against the law, and is threatening to turn off its search engine for Australian users if it goes into effect. (For its part, Microsoft recently said it would be happy to pay for news, and fill the void with its own search engine, Bing.) Facebook has threatened to block sharing news at all in Australia if the law goes into effect

And the law is indeed riddled with problems. If a major platform or web publisher would be charged for the act of linking to an Australian news outlet, it would likely result in sites actively omitting, avoiding, or blocking those links. Worse, the proposal doesn’t distinguish between the act of an ordinary Facebook user sharing an interesting link on their feed with the company itself actively surfacing news content on its platform via special news features like its recently launched news hub.

The regulation would also make basic, existing social media features untenable in Australia. A Twitter embed that shows a headline, excerpt, and photo of a news article, for example, would require payment for “using” media content. Twitter would need to show just the link with no preview to pull potential readers in, likely diminishing the appeal of the story in the first place — a somewhat ironic outcome, given that the regulation is intended to support news publishers, who rely on traffic to their websites to generate revenue

If this feels familiar, it’s because we’ve already seen this story play out in Europe already multiple times. A 2019 directive would require Google and others to pay for the simple act of linking, though it’s yet to come into effect. In a separate case, Google stripped preview snippets from search results in France in response to a new law that required tech companies to pay French media for using any component of an article. It later agreed to pay publishers that participate in a feature called “news showcase,” which surfaces longer snippets of news in certain countries.

What’s frustrating about Australia’s law is that platform behemoths building special news features to give themselves an advantage should be reined in for precisely this reason. The news industry is very much at the mercy of Facebook and Google’s whims — which drive the majority of news traffic — and many organizations are dependent on that traffic for their survival. As Google and Facebook change algorithms and add features to drive sharing news on their own platforms, media outlets must constantly adapt to the whims of the platforms from pivoting to video to lowering the rank of links in the news feed in favor of engagement, or forcing news sites to implement proprietary formats to ensure they continue to show up in search results.

Google’s AMP technology, for example, gave publishers that use the company’s proprietary format an advantage in search results with enhanced previews and a prominent position. That is where this law could be used to provide a level playing field. The news carousel made search more useful, but it also allowed Google to exert control over an entire industry to give itself an advantage by forcing publishers to use its technologies, and ultimately keep users on their own platforms, using their own algorithms to determine what news users see.

I’ve been on the other side of this myself. As an independent publisher with my own site, the only way I could get any advantage was to play every game Facebook and Google threw at me, spending hours implementing the Google AMP format and Facebook Instant Pages to try and show up on the platforms in a meaningful way, rather than being treated equally regardless of whether I implemented a proprietary technology.

Charging platforms for their users sharing links, or the act of having them indexed in search, however, misunderstands the value of allowing people to share links on social media and the open web. I genuinely can’t believe I’m defending Facebook, but when an individual shares a link on their news feed, it’s “paid for” through all of their friends clicking on it, rather than that news outlet needing to reach each of them individually. It’s free advertising for the media outlet, not a monetizable event.

Free linking is both one of the web’s superpowers, and a fundamental principle of the modern internet, as Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, pointed out when made a statement against the law last month. Yes, Google and Facebook are far too powerful and we should examine how they use news content to keep users on their platforms, but trying to monetize the act of posting a link would fundamentally change how the web is built, and make it far less useful for all of us.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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