Google has portrayed itself as a defender of the open Internet as it battles an Australian proposal to force Google and Facebook to pay Australian news organizations to link to their articles. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has argued that the ability to link to content without paying is “fundamental to how the Web operates.”
Google has warned that if the proposal becomes law, the company may exit the Australian search market altogether.
But Microsoft, one of Google’s top search competitors, isn’t rallying to defend the principle of free linking. “While Microsoft is not subject to the legislation currently pending, we’d be willing to live by these rules,” Microsoft said of the Australian proposal in a statement to Reuters.
Australia’s new rules would initially apply to just two companies: Google and Facebook. According to regulators, these two firms have such a dominant position in the Australian market—in search and social media, respectively—that news organizations aren’t able to negotiate with them on a level playing field. Google controls 94 percent of the Australian search market, according to Reuters.
To correct the alleged power imbalance between these tech giants and the Australian media, the proposal would force them into an arbitration process to determine how much to pay news sites to link to their articles. Under the rules, the tech giants will definitely have to pay something—and they also won’t be allowed to stop linking to news sites in order to avoid paying. These rules would apply not only to Google News but also to regular search results, which also frequently include news stories.
In the past, Google has used hardball tactics to beat back these kinds of proposals. In 2014, Google shut down Google News in Spain to avoid having to pay to link to Spanish news sites. But that tactic has grown less effective over time. France recently passed its own “link tax” law that requires sites like Google to get permission to use “snippets” of news articles in search results, known as “neighboring rights” in French law. French competition regulators said that Google couldn’t simply stop showing snippets of French news sites in search results, since that would discriminate against those sites.
So last month, Google agreed to pay French news sites to host their content in a new product called Google Showcase. While Google insists this isn’t a pay-to-link deal, the deal will also “cover publishers’ neighboring rights.” In other words, the deal gave Google a license to link to French news sites in search results.
Microsoft’s decision to break ranks with Google further undermines Google’s bargaining position. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison says that he spoke to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella last week. If Google exits the Australian market, Microsoft will be ready to pick up the slack with Bing, Morrison said on Monday.
“Microsoft in its statement said it will offer small firms a chance to transfer advertising business to Bing with no costs and that it would invest further in the product to ensure it is competitive,” Reuters reports.