Google Agrees To Pay French Publishers, While Threatening Search Engine Cut-Off In Australia

Google has reached a precedent-setting agreement to pay French publishers for content, while threatening to shut down its search engine in Australia in its ongoing battle over content-payment legislation in that country.

During an Australian Senate hearing on Friday, Mel Silva, Google’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, asserted that the country’s draft legislation was still “unworkable” because it "would require payments simply for links and snippets just to news results in Search.”

“The free service we offer Australian users, and our business model, has been built on the ability to link freely between websites," she said, according to a CNN report and other media coverage. “When you put a price on linking to certain information, you break the way search engines work, and you no longer have a free and open web.”

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If the law passes as is, Google would have “no real choice but to stop making Google Search available” in the country, Silva asserted.

But Rod Sims, chairman of Australia’s consumer protection regulator and the main architect of the code, replied that the code “does not require Google and Facebook to pay for linking news content,” reports The New York Times. “Indeed, discussions we are aware of have focused on paying upfront lump sum amounts, not per click.”

“The aim of the code is to address the uneven bargaining position between Australian news media businesses and the big digital platforms who have clear market power,” Sims stressed.

Last week, Google acknowledged that it was blocking some major Australian news sites from search results for about 1% of local users, describing it as an “experiment” to test of the value of Australian news sources.

Google has said that it is not opposed to regulation per se, but to what it maintains is Australia’s proposed mandatory “one-sided” (skewed toward media) negotiation and arbitration model, advance notice of algorithm changes, and other information sharing with the media.

The draft code would allow media to bargain individually or collectively with platforms over content prices, with the right to enter independent arbitration if an agreement is not reached within three months.

Facebook has also been fighting the legislation since last summer, and during the same Senate hearing, repeated its own threats to stop Australian users from sharing news links on the platform if the code is passed in its current form.

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, responded to the platforms’ testimony with a statement reminding them that Australia’s parliament makes the country’s rules, and “we don’t respond to threats.”

Google is proposing changes to the code, including an alternate payments scenario that would formalize and expand its News Showcase in Australia, reports CNN. Seven Australian publishers are already receiving payments under that program, which Google has said will pay about 200 publishers around the world more than $1 billion in content licensing fees over the next three years.  

Google is also trying to amend a requirement that it provide algorithm change notifications. The platform argues that it should so only “to make sure publishers are able to respond to changes that affect them.”

Whereas earlier drafts of the legislation would have required 28 days’ notice, “if the bill passes in one form or another, which seems likely, the digital platforms will have to give the media 14 days’ notice of deliberate algorithm changes that significantly affect their businesses,” according to the Times.

“It’s about the external process being imposed on [the platforms] by legislation, rather than by them just being able to dole out deals as they see fit,” said Peter Lewis, director of the Center for Responsible Technology at the Australia Institute, an independent research group. “It shifts the balance of power from their hands to a third party, and that’s what they can’t countenance.”

Meanwhile, Google has struck an agreement in France that could set a precedent for agreements across Europe under new copyright laws.

“When new rules went into effect last year in France requiring publishers to be paid for snippets of news stories displayed in search results, Google announced it would only display headlines,” summarizes CNN. “In April, the French competition authority ruled that Google had abused its market dominance and ordered the company to negotiate with French publishers.”

The difference from the Australian scenario? The French deal allows the company to negotiate with publishers using criteria established by Google, according to the Times.

Under the agreement announced Thursday between Google and the Alliance de la presse d’information générale (APIG), which represents French publishers, payments would be calculated based on criteria including monthly internet traffic, daily “volume” of a media company's publications, and "contribution to political and general information."

The announcement of the agreement did not provide specifics about how much publishers would be paid. Google, which will now negotiate licensing deals with individual French publishers, has already made deals with a few daily newspaper and magazine publishers, according to CNN.

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