Google’s history with news publishers is, to say the least, complicated. The company historically has resisted paying licensing fees for news, arguing that it was delivering considerable value to publishers in the form of traffic. But some publishers (e.g., Rupert Murdoch) have complained over the years that Google was actually “siphoning” their ad revenues, eroding their brands and hurting subscriptions.
Legislative tug of war. European regulators and legislators tried for several years to force Google to pay publishers with more restrictive copyright laws and lawsuits, which didn’t really work. However French antitrust authorities recently ordered Google to pay for news content and work out a deal with publishers.
This years-long back-and-forth, against the economic backdrop of traditional news media decline, has helped evolve Google’s position. More recently the company has sought to be a better partner to publishers. In that spirit it launched the Google News Initiative in 2018 “to help build a more sustainable future for news via programs like Subscribe with Google and the Local Experiments Project.”
In June of this year Google announced a news-content licensing program “to pay publishers for high-quality content for a new news experience launching later this year.” Google says this new initiative will feature “an enhanced storytelling experience that lets people go deeper into more complex stories.” It began testing this program in Germany, Brazil and Australia.
This new product will reportedly live side-by-side with Google News and won’t replace it.
Australian media bargaining code. In Australia the company has hit a bit of a snag, however. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) recently released a “News Media Bargaining Code,” that would impose tough new rules on Google’s (and Facebook’s) dealings with news publishers. Google sees it as intensely draconian measure, whereas the ACCC regards it as a tool to redress an imbalance in bargaining power between Google and publishers.
The ACCC says, “The draft code will allow Australian news businesses to negotiate for fair payment for their journalists’ work that is included on Google services [and] will address a significant bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook.” The code would, for example, allow collective bargaining between publishers and Google.
Google responded to the release of the code by issuing an appeal to consumers that claims its adoption would result in a “dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube, could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, and would put the free services you use at risk in Australia.” Google argues that smaller publishers and content creators would be disadvantaged and big publishers like News Corp. (owned by Rupert Murdoch) would reap the benefits. The ACCC disputed these characterizations.
Algorithm change notification. Among other things, the code requires Google to provide advanced notice of significant algorithm changes (by nearly a month) to enable publishers to adapt. The term “significant” is mostly undefined in the documentation, although there are some guidelines.
It also requires the parties to submit to binding arbitration if they can’t voluntarily agree on licensing terms. Google fears that publishers will overvalue their own content as a tactic, forcing arbitration where arbitrators would be able to impose content-licensing fees on the company without a right to appeal.
Google argues the algorithm-update notice requirement would be especially problematic. The company says (.pdf), providing advanced notice of algorithmic changes would “undermine their purpose, which is typically to address abuses that may harm consumers and the quality and integrity of search results.” Google further asserts that “Any requirement to provide details or notification of safety updates would put consumers at risk.”
There’s also the question of fairness. Why should only “news publishers” receive notice of algorithm changes? Not that they would remain confidential for very long.
Why we care. The ACCC code is still a piece of draft legislation. But it will likely be implemented as is or in a form close to the current proposal. The tone struck by the ACCC to Google’s objections is one of defiance and indignation. Google has not said this explicitly, but I suspect it’s concerned the ACCC code could become a model for other governments seeking to subsidize news publishers who see Google as a “deep pocket.”
We can debate the merits and ethics of such as approach and whether news publishers should be subject to the pressures of the “free market.” But, if Google is compelled to formally notify publishers of algorithm changes in advance, that information would probably leak publicly and globally. And, while some SEOs would welcome that, it could have larger, unintended consequences for the search ecosystem.