‘Free services at risk’: Google warns search will suffer under ACCC media code in sabre-rattling letter

Multinational technology giant Google has threatened a “dramatically worse Google Search” to Australian businesses and consumers under a new bargaining code that would force it to cough up cash to media outlets.

In an extraordinary open letter published on Monday, the US-headquartered company warned the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)’s code of conduct “would put the free services you use at risk in Australia”.

“You’ve always relied on Google Search and YouTube to show you what’s most relevant and helpful to you. We could no longer guarantee that under this law,” Google’s ANZ managing director Melanie Silva wrote.

“News media businesses alone would be given information that would help them artificially inflate their ranking over everyone else, even when someone else provides a better result.

“We’ve always treated all website owners fairly when it comes to the information we share about ranking. The proposed changes are not fair and they mean that Google Search results and YouTube will be worse for you.”

The sabre-rattling letter comes as the ACCC moves to finalise a draft code of conduct that would redefine the commercial relationship between technology companies including Google and news media businesses, which have long complained about being ripped-off by multinational platforms using their content.

Under the new rules, Google and Facebook would be forced to reimburse media businesses for using their content, and would be required to notify them of changes to their algorithms at least 28 days ahead of time.

ACCC chair Rod Sims later admonished the tech giant, saying the letter contained “misinformation” about the draft bargaining code.

“The open letter published by Google today contains misinformation about the draft news media bargaining code which the ACCC would like to address,” Sims said in a statement.

 “Google will not be required to charge Australians for the use of its free services such as Google Search and YouTube, unless it chooses to do so.

“The draft code will allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services.

“This will address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook.

“A healthy news media sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy.

“We will continue to consult on the draft code with interested parties, including Google,” Sims continued.

Google launched a campaign on Monday to get its message out, utilising its immense web presence, —which reaches tens of millions of Australians each month—to issue pop-up notifications to users advertising its letter.

Google has long been critical of the code, voicing vigorous opposition in rounds of consultation with the ACCC and media stakeholders, although Monday’s letter is a clear escalation in tensions after months of negotiations.

“We’ve offered to pay more to license content. But rather than encouraging these types of partnerships, the law is set up to give big media companies special treatment and to encourage them to make enormous and unreasonable demands that would put our free services at risk,” Silva wrote.

“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to get this proposal changed so we can protect how Search and YouTube work for you in Australia and continue to build constructive partnerships with news media businesses — not choose one over the other.”

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