Imagine a world without Google, the search engine so pervasive it’s the starting point for more than five billion queries a day. That’s the reality facing Australia, where the tech giant is threatening to unplug its homepage in a standoff with the government.
Google opposes a planned law that would force the company and Facebook Inc to pay Australian publishers for news content. The Internet juggernaut’s ultimatum to local lawmakers – change the legislation, or else – has left a digital vacuum hanging over a nation that essentially knows just one way to navigate the web. Google runs 95% of Internet searches in Australia.
Google threatened to disable its search engine in Australia if it’s forced to pay local publishers for news, a dramatic escalation of a months-long standoff with the government.
Potential fallout from the spat goes far beyond Australia for Alphabet Inc-owned Google, whose dominance of global advertising has made it a target for watchdogs worldwide. If the company backs down in Australia, the pay-for-news law risks becoming a template for jurisdictions including Canada and the European Union that are following the quarrel and keen to shorten Google’s lead.
But disabling what is arguably the world’s most famous website would hand all of Australia to rivals, including Microsoft Corp’s Bing and DuckDuckGo, which have failed to dislodge Google as the gateway to the web. These search-engine competitors would suddenly have a playground for development and a foothold to advance on the global stage.
Software-engineering student Patrick Smith exemplifies Australia’s Google dependency. The 24-year-old from Canberra said he sometimes racks up 400 Google searches a day to help with his studies, catch up on news and look up recipes. Smith said his browser from the previous day shows 150 searches – in the space of just five hours.
“The prospect of Google search disappearing is frightening at best,” Smith said. “It’s quite reflexive of me to Google something, anything, that I’m even mildly not sure of.”
Searching for ‘best beach Sydney’ shows the variance in performance among Google’s competitors. DuckDuckGo’s first result was an ad for a hotel more than 1,000 kilometres away in Queensland. Search Encrypt, which touts its data-protection capability, said: ‘It looks like there aren’t any great matches.’ Bing suggested Bondi Beach Post Office. Only Google returned a real beach, Bondi, first up.
Australia last week released a fiscal blueprint that pushes debt and deficit to a peacetime record just hours after the central bank signalled a willingness to ease further as both arms of policy press to drive down unemployment.
The world-first legislation is still being debated in Australia’s parliament and a report on the law from a key senate committee is due on Friday.
The government says the local media industry – including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Sydney Morning Herald-publisher Nine Entertainment Co – has been bled of advertising revenue by the tech giants and should be paid fairly for content.
Google argues it drives traffic to their websites, and that being forced to pay to display snippets of news breaks the principle of an open Internet. It also opposes the law’s final-offer arbitration model that determines how much it should pay publishers.
Facebook has said it may stop Australians from sharing news on its platform if the law is enacted, an unprecedented step.
Australia’s entire economic output is less than Alphabet’s $1.4tn market value, so it may be surprising the distant and tiny market is suddenly so important. But the Internet titans are so keen to avoid Australia setting a global precedent that Alphabet chief executive officer Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg broke into their diaries in recent weeks for phone hookups with Prime Minister Scott Morrison or his ministers.
Sniffing an opportunity, Microsoft president Brad Smith and CEO Satya Nadella also reached out.
Grabbing the free hit, Smith told Morrison that Microsoft would invest to “ensure Bing is comparable to our competitors.”
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