Google’s high-handed threat to shut down its search engine in Australia smacks of the knife-flourishing baddie in Crocodile Dundee. The eponymous ocker hero carried a far bigger blade. The search behemoth hopes to avoid paying publishers whose content it uses to lure users. Facebook has taken the same stance, threatening to stop Australians sharing news stories on its platforms.
The US tech giants hope to ward off the same fight in other markets. With public goodwill in short supply, both companies are more likely to compromise than win.
Rival search engines like Ecosia and DuckDuckGo should not get too excited. Their big rivals are unlikely to leave. Australia’s population is small — equivalent to just 0.1 per cent of Facebook’s total users and 0.6 per cent of estimated Google search users. But as the 13th largest country by GDP, average revenue per user is healthy.
Better to make a deal. The fight pits one oligopoly against another. Google and Facebook account for over 80 per cent of digital advertising in Australia, according to the competition regulator. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, the biggest newspaper owner, claims to reach 16m people across its outlets — close to two-thirds of the population.
Media groups like News Corp were slow to claim a slice of the $330bn digital ads market. But their complaint that Facebook and Google act as gatekeepers without taking responsibility for content is legitimate. The pandemic has sharpened the trend. Global print advertising fell 25 per cent last year, according to WPP’s media buying agency GroupM.
Google’s claim that payment is unmanageable is disingenuous. Parent company Alphabet has already agreed to pay French publishers an undisclosed sum for snippets of articles following a fight with regulators. There is something in it for the tech giants too. Content from established news organisations reduces the burden of moderation.
Agreeing to a similar scheme in Australia — and keeping the terms quiet — would be a much better outcome than provoking angry lawmakers into calling Big Tech’s bluff. If they do, peers in other nations will follow suit.
The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of the stand-off in the comments section below.