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25 January 2021updated 01 Feb 2021 6:14pm

Can the Australian government win its fight with Google?

The search giant has threatened to withdraw services from the country after facing pressure to pay news publishers a fee for their journalism.

By Oscar Williams

As the global debate over tech regulation intensifies, Australia has become the latest battleground for politicians and tech executives to thrash out their competing visions for the future of the web.

Concerned by publications’ declining ad revenues, the Australian government has proposed a radical new law that would force companies such as Google and Facebook to pay news publishers a fee for linking to their journalism. Under the legislation, a new bargaining code would also be established to mandate Google and Facebook to enter mediation with publishers if an agreement over fees cannot be reached.

Both companies are resisting the proposals, but Google, which is particularly exposed to the legislation, has taken the more aggressive stance. During an Australian Senate hearing on 22 January, the managing director of Google Australia, Mel Silva, described the plans as unworkable. “If this version of the code were to become law, it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia,” she warned.

While Google has withdrawn Google News from countries that have sought to introduce less drastic measures in the past, removing its search engine entirely would be an unprecedented step. And although threatening to do so is yet another example of Silicon Valley attempting to evade regulation, Google and Facebook aren’t the only critics of the law in its current form.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is one of the US tech industry’s most prominent detractors. But testifying against the law on 18 January, he warned that the “ability to link freely […] is fundamental to how the web operates, how it has flourished till present and how it will continue to grow in decades to come”. Vint Cerf, another pioneer of the early internet, has expressed similar concerns.

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Australian politicians may yet decide to drop the part of the bill that mandates tech companies to pay to include links, but the rest of the legislation – including proposals for Google and Facebook to pay publishers for the snippets of content that appear on their platforms – is likely to remain. Only on 21 January did Google come to an agreement with a group of French publishers to remunerate them for their content, and it has already conceded that it could pay Australian publishers (albeit based on its own terms).

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But beyond this particular debate, Google’s threat raises a more fundamental question: should companies be entitled to grow so large, and be so free of genuine competition, that they can attempt to fend off regulation simply by threatening to remove their service from a market? In doing so, Google has only served to remind regulators and politicians around the world of the scale of its power – and why so many want it to be reined in.