Google has rejected Australia's demand that it share its earnings from online ads with the continent's depleted news media. Canberra's plan to codify intervention by late July is being watched around the world.
Google Australia on Monday rejected Canberra's demand that it — and other tech giants like Facebook — share earnings from news-linked online advertising with Australia's depleted media outlets.
By late July the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), on instructions from federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg, is due to publish a mandatory code to force revenue sharing.
Australian media outlets, with newsroom jobs and ads dwindling in the corona crisis, should get 10% of revenue, or AU$600 million (US$400 million) annually, calculated Peter Costello, chairman of Australia's Nine network last month.
The figure was put higher at AU$1 billion by Michael Miller, executive chair of News Corp Australia, another major media operator.
Google Australia's managing director, Mel Silva, appointed Google's chief for Australia and New Zealand last year after a two-year stint in Singapore, hit back Monday, dismissing "inaccurate numbers" based on "unfounded assertions."
Google, she claimed, made barely AU$10 million (US$6.7 million) and that was revenue, not profit, adding that the "bulk" came from consumers' searches while shopping online, not from news queries.
"Google last year generated approximately AU$10 million in revenue — not profit — from clicks on ads against possible news-related queries in Australia," said Silva, describing "direct economic value" from news content as "very small."
Most of this revenue came "not from news queries, but from queries with commercial intent, as when someone searches for "running shoes," she said.
"Indirect" value Google Search in Australia got in terms of news gleaned when users scanned "videos, recipes, sport, weather…" was "just over 1% of total queries, she added.
Publishers were already benefiting, Silva claimed, as users clicked through to Australian news websites, giving them chances to "make money" from ads and encouraging them to become subscribers.
In a veiled warning, Silva said: "The mandatory code will have important consequences for Australians, including how and which types of news they can search and discover through Google."
Mandatory or voluntary?
Frydenberg switched tack last April in his long campaign as Australia's budgetary overseer to force digital giants to pay: He declared there had been "no meaningful progress" at voluntary talks and draft rules would be worked out by late July.
"These are big companies that we are dealing with, but there is so much at stake, so we're prepared for this fight," he said at the time.
Australia's Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said Canberra was taking a different approach compared to Europe, by requiring shared earnings via a mandatory competition law rather than chasing copyright fees for items reused online.
Facebook and Google's parent Alphabet said they had been working "hard" and "constructively" to negotiate voluntary shares of content earnings since last year.
Online giants facing pressures
Google's reply Monday coincided with mounting pressures worldwide on online giants.
Last Thursday, US President Donald Trump, previously an avid user of Twitter, signed an executive order seeking to strip social media outlets of legal immunity by redefining them as publishers liable for content posted by users.
The American Civil Liberties Union called Trump's order a "blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president."
Last Tuesday, Twitter labeled two of his tweets as misleading.
Scrutinizing visa applicants?
On Thursday, the Internet Association — including Facebook, Amazon.com, Alphabet as members — filed a lawsuit in Washington challenging Trump's 2019 bid to force foreign visitors to disclose social media user data of the past five years.
The Justice Department argues that social media profiles "can be used to determine activity, ties, or intent that would be grounds for visa denial, including criminal acts."
Facebook on Monday said it had been "legally compelled" by Singapore to block several of its pages run by anti-government activist, Alex Tan, reportedly based in Australia.
The social media giant said blocking orders such as Singapore's under its 2019 "Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act" (POFMA), were "severe and risk being misused to stifle voices and perspectives on the internet."
Singapore has insisted the law safeguards its multiethnic society.
ipj/stb (AFP, AP, Reuters)