New Delhi: Google made news this week for two deals — one with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and the other with Australian publisher Seven West Media — that entailed paying for content that gets featured on its product ‘Google News Showcase’.
This is significant as the Silicon Valley tech giant has spent months battling the Australian government over a proposed law that seeks to ensure news publishers are “fairly” remunerated for content featured on services like Google Search and Facebook News Feed.
Google’s deal with News Corp opens up the tech company’s access to publications such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Sun, The Times and others that are owned by the media company.
Its deal with Seven West Media, reported to be worth over USD 23 million annually, is for content Google will feature on its News Showcase but not on its search engine.
The company had threatened to unplug its homepage amid the standoff with the Australian government over the proposed law. It has maintained it won’t compensate publishers for content or links appearing on its search engine.
Instead, the ‘Google News Showcase’ allows “participating publishers [to] share their expertise and editorial voice through an enhanced storytelling experience”.
Meanwhile, Facebook opted to block Australian users from sharing or viewing news content. On 18 February, Australians realised that Facebook pages of regional and global news sites were not available on the social media platform, BBC reported.
The Mark Zuckerberg company also blocked the Australian government’s health and emergency pages, which the social media giant later said was a “mistake” and that it would reinstate the pages.
News Corp’s ‘landmark three-year agreement’
News Corp called its deal with Google a “landmark three-year agreement” and said it involved a “significant” payment for “premium content”. In addition, the deal involves developing a subscription platform, sharing ad revenue via Google’s ad technology services, cultivating audio journalism and investments in video journalism by YouTube.
In the company announcement on 17 February, News Corp Chief Executive Robert Thomson thanked Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg for standing “firm for their country and for journalism”.
Thomson said the deal will have “a positive impact on journalism around the globe as we have firmly established that there should be a premium for premium journalism”. He also thanked Google and parent company Alphabet Inc CEO Sundar Pichai.
What is the law Australia is planning and why
Last April, Australia began the process for creating the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020 to address “bargaining power imbalances” between news media businesses and digital platforms, “specifically Google and Facebook”.
To this end, the Australian government asked the Competition & Consumer Commission to develop a mandatory code of conduct.
The Bill was introduced in the Australian parliament in December 2020 following inquiries by its competition commission into dominance of digital platforms that started in 2017. A report was published in 2019.
The country is intent on bringing in this law despite Google and Facebook arguing that it is “unworkable”. A 12 February Associated Press report said the Australian government “hopes it [the bill] will be approved during the next two-week sitting”. The latest parliament session started Wednesday.
In a January 2021 open letter, Google stated that the Bill, if passed into law, would “break the way Google works” and that its search engine cannot be made available to users in Australia.
“Right now, no website or search engine pays to connect people to other sites through links. This law would change that, making Google pay to provide links for the first time in our history. If the law requires Google to pay to link people to websites, it’s a slippery slope. After all, if one type of business gets paid for appearing in Search, why shouldn’t others?” Google said in the letter.
“Going down that route would destroy the business model of any search engine, Google included. And if a search engine has to pay to show links, what’s to stop links elsewhere coming with a price tag, too?… This code creates an unreasonable and unmanageable financial and operational risk to our business,” it added.
How Google Search, Facebook News Feed share news
Google uses automated programs called “crawlers” that look for pages on the web. These pages are then analysed for the content, videos and images it contains. This process of collating information is called indexing.
Now, when a user searches for something using Google, the search engine shows the web pages it has indexed based on what is most relevant using factors like user location, language, device (desktop or phone), and previous queries.
If businesses, including news publishers, don’t want their web pages appearing on Google Search, they can opt out.
On the Facebook News Feed, content such as news articles appear when a user’s ‘friend’ reacts to or comments on a post from a news publisher.
Google’s work around the Bill
Noting that the aim of the proposed Australian code of conduct is “to support the financial future of publishers”, Google contends that news publishers can be supported without it having to pay them for links showing up among search hits.
“We need to find a way of supporting journalism without breaking Google Search — and we’ve come to the table with a solution,” it said in December 2020.
Its solution is a product called Google News Showcase, a licensing program where Google pays publishers “for high-quality content”.
“Where available, Google will also offer to pay for free access for users to read paywalled articles on a publisher’s site,” the company said.
Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai first announced the service in October 2020 and said Google is putting in an initial investment of $1 billion. “This financial commitment — our biggest to date — will pay publishers to create and curate high-quality content for a different kind of online news experience,” Pichai said.
Google News Showcase is currently available in 12 countries, including the UK, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Japan, France, and Australia.
The service is not yet available in India or to Indian news publishers.
Pichai had said the number of news publications will grow as the company works to expand News Showcase to other countries. Those on this list include Belgium and the Netherlands, apart from India.
Google has so far partnered with around 450 publications such as Reuters, The Conversation in Australia, Clarin in Argentina and The Financial Times in the UK.
Not just Australia
Other countries are also concerned about the tech giant showcasing news for free. After months of bargaining, Google and a publisher’s lobby in France struck a deal in January 2021 wherein Google will pay news publishers for content.
This deal was also made through Google’s News Showcase.