Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist best known for the inventor of the World Wide Web, says that Australian plans to make digital giants pay for journalism could set a precedent that would make the Internet as we know it unusable makes.
“In particular, I fear that this code harbors the risk of violating a fundamental principle of the Internet by requiring payment for the linking of certain online content,” Berners-Lee told a Senate committee that was proposing a bill to create the new media Bargaining Code checked.
It is a question that divides proponents and critics of the proposed Australian law: does it effectively make Google and Facebook “pay for clicks” and could this be the beginning of the end of free access?
The struggle is being closely watched in the European Union, where officials and lawmakers are creating massive new digital regulations.
Google claims the law requires it to pay for clicks. Google regional executive director Melanie Silva told the same Senate committee that read Berners-Lee’s post last month that she was most concerned that the code “only requires payments for links and snippets.”
“The concept of paying a very small group of website or content creators to only appear in our organic search results sets a dangerous precedent for us that poses an unmanageable risk from a product and business model perspective,” said Silva .
Facebook regional vice president Simon Milner agreed that the potential cost of messaging under the Code was “completely unlimited and undetectable”.
The Australian Code uniquely contains a negotiation safety net. A court of arbitration would prevent digital giants from abusing their dominant bargaining positions by offering news companies payment offers for their journalism.
In the event of a stalemate, the panel would make a binding decision on whose best bid wins.
Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s think tank for responsible technology, said the monetary value of journalism of public interest is not yet known.
“The reason this is a short-lived process is because no one has ever tried it,” Lewis told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“How do you value fact-based news without advertising? Messages have always been rated based on how many ads the outlet can sell. With Google and Facebook dominating the advertising market and taking that out of the equation, let’s try to figure out the value of public interest journalism, ”added Lewis.
Google has responded to the threat of mandatory arbitration by stepping up negotiations on licensing agreements with Australian media companies on its own news showcase model.
Facebook responded Thursday by preventing users from accessing and sharing Australian news.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg changed the bill after weekend talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, managing directors of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, to make it clear that the platforms are not charged per news snippet or link.
“We never intended that. . . For example, if the arbitrator oversaw a deal between a television broadcaster and one of the digital platforms, that digital platform would pay 2 cents for every click in the coming year, ”said Frydenberg. “That was never the intention. The intent was always to get a lump sum payment and we explicitly stated that in the code. “
Dan Stinton is the managing director of Guardian Australia and New Zealand, which are negotiating a license agreement through Google’s News Showcase.
According to Stinton, Google has benefited from News by working with search users referring to journalism, the consumer data Google collects from publishers, and from its revenue sharing from advertisements published with news articles.
“Google has made an argument that they are being asked to pay for links in search and they are not,” Stinton said.
“They don’t steal published content, but I believe they are using their market power to favor their own businesses to the detriment of publishers, and that’s not right,” said Stinton.
“It pays not just for links and snippets within the search, but for all of the benefits Google gets,” he added.
Since launching News Showcase in October, Google has closed pay deals with more than 450 publications worldwide.
The EU Executive Commission has proposed new rules to tame the biggest digital gatekeepers. Proposals that prevail through negotiation between legislators in the 27-member bloc parliament could be amended to include elements of the Australian model.
The UK, which recently left the EU, is planning similar digital reforms that will mess up relationships between online platforms and news publishers.
“There’s definitely an influence,” said Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers Council, a media company lobby group. “It is closely monitored by everyone involved in the outcome.”
Publishers in European countries can already charge technology companies for the use of their stories under recently revised copyright rules. France was the first country to incorporate these rules into national law, and Google initially resisted payments. It changed its mind when a court ordered it to negotiate that resulted in a deal with a group of French publishers.
Part of the Australian model that has attracted European attention is the requirement of binding arbitration if payment talks fail to lead to an agreement that Google has resisted because it would give the company less control.
Mills Wade said several leading EU lawmakers want to add an arbitration mechanism to digital regulations.
“Given that Google and Facebook have undermined the scope of the publishing right, it is clear that regulatory action is needed, particularly the final arbitration mechanism,” said Mills Wade. “Otherwise the majority of publishers will not have the bargaining power to reach agreements.”
Google has other news payment agreements, including a multi-year agreement with tycoon Rupert Murdochs News Corp.
Mills Wade welcomed the deal, saying it shows that Google is “putting a lot of emphasis” on news content.
“However, regulators in Australia, but also in Europe, should not be misled if they believe that individual deals, especially shortly before comprehensive laws come into force, are the answer to ensuring fair compensation for all publishers, large and small, whose content is used by google, “she said.
Chan contributed from London