Dispute over news: Google threatens to shut down search engine in Australia

In Australia, Google and Facebook have been fighting with the government for some time over proposed legislation that could mean payments from the two tech giants to news companies. The US companies are now threatening new measures to fight it.

The latest escalation in the battle between Google, Facebook and Australian authorities is a threat to shut down Google’s search engine. Facebook threatened to disable News Feed for all users in Australia.

Dispute over payments to news companies

The background is a suggested law that would require Google and Facebook to negotiate payments to news companies when they link to media content. If they cannot reach an agreement, a mediator is supposed to help determine the final payment.

As the Guardian reports, this would mean 19 million Australians would have to give up Google search, which they use monthly. Another 17 million Facebook users in Australia would no longer be able to see or link to news in their news feed.

A Google spokeswoman said the company was looking to make changes to the law to make it “workable”. Exactly what those changes are is not clear from the report, which also said Google would be happy to reach agreements with news organisations to do so. There are already around 450 such agreements worldwide, they said.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said of Google’s proposal that they don’t respond to threats. “Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia,” Morrison said, but the spokeswoman said it was not a threat but a worst-case scenario.

No blanket rejection of deals with media companies

The dispute, however, is apparently not about Google generally refusing deals with and payments to media companies. Rather, according to the New York Times, the issue in Australia is about who decides on payments, when fees apply and when tech companies must disclose any changes to algorithms. So the tech giants would potentially be at a disadvantage here, with large and unpredictable costs.

In other countries – in France recently, for example – Google has been able to agree with news companies on certain criteria, such as readership size. Here, there are no mediators, which means disputes may end up in court and may be debated for a long time before payment is required. So media companies may lose out here.

So while an agreement has already been reached with Google in France, the German government has not yet been able to agree on a draft of how the EU reform should be implemented – the SPD and CDU, at least, have yet to reach a common denominator. However, the coalition in Germany still has a little time: the EU directives must be implemented in national law by June.