The news battle worth staying across

|| September 2, 2020

By Jordan McDonald

55 comms Social Media Coordinator

If you’ve visited Google recently you would have noticed an exclamation pop-up hovering below the search bar reading: “The way Aussies search every day on Google is at risk from new government regulation.” The warning links to an open letter from Google AU/NZ managing director Mel Silva warning Google and YouTube’s offerings in Australia could become “dramatically worse”, that the services themselves are “at risk” and all Australian users could be affected. 

The warning has come from concerns that a proposed law that would require Google and Facebook to pay for news content published on their platforms. Australia regulators say that the tech giants benefit from the news content published on their respective platforms but publishers don’t have a way to make them pay for it. 

This issue isn’t new. In 2014, a Spanish law required publishers to charge Google for the headlines and snippets of their stories that appeared on Google News. How did Google respond? Removed Google News service from Spain entirely and took Spanish publishers off its service globally. The Spanish publishers were hit hard as a result – readership dropped significantly, particularly for smaller outlets.

Last year France wrote into EU law a copyright directive that demanded Google pay for news content that appeared on its sites. How did they respond? Googgle removed French publishers’ snippets from its search results and did not pay for links. As a result, Google has been ordered back to the bargaining table this year. 

In 2014, Germany’s biggest publishing house briefly barred Google from featuring snippets of its articles in a bid to make the search giant pay for licensing fees but quickly backed down after traffic plunged.

So, it was abundantly clear how Google and Facebook planned to react in Australia when pressured. Facebook yesterday published a letter which explained that news content on their platform is highly substitutable and not a major revenue stream for them. The letter went on to very clearly say that if the draft code became law, they would “reluctantly” stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram. The letter goes on to explain how the draft code is in fact counterproductive to what news publishers actually want to achieve and highlights that the current model, which sent 2.3 billion clicks estimated by Facebook at $200 million AUD in the first five months of 2020, is where it should stay. Facebook supports this further by boasting the numerous free tools they provide publishers to extend their reach beyond what they currently can.

It’s a really interesting story, one that will significantly impact digital media in our lifetime. But how will this affect us, the user, on an individual level? Here’s what I think …

If the regulation falls in favour of the publishers, and Google and Facebook remove all news publications like they’ve said – then we’ll simply see less news in our feeds. However, Facebook has used that word “substitutable”, which means that empty space will be filled with something else. A while back Facebook changed its newsfeed model to facilitate more meaningful connections and time on Facebook, and that really hurt publishers and content creators.

Does this mean we’ll see more of our friends’ content, will Facebook start forcing branded content into our feeds, or will they source news from other less-reliable news sources thus kicking up the dust on fake news concerns again? It’s unclear what will fill the gap. As a frequent Facebook user, I do get a lot of my news from my news feed. I don’t go looking for news, but it makes its way through my feed. I can completely see how detrimental this will be for the news publishers that are still standing – it would be critical for the survival of some outlets. One concern that is being missed is: where else will people get their news? As someone who didn’t grow up reading newspapers, news has always come to me digitally through my social feeds. If that’s removed, then I legitimately think I won’t see much news at all unless I go looking for it. People aren’t sitting down to watch the news at night anymore – online newspaper subscription numbers aren’t high enough to sustain the publishers for much longer – what happens next?

I really look forward to watching this situation develop because the end result will change the Australian news and digital media landscape permanently.