Google threatens to disable search engine as Aussie row deepens

SYDNEY • Google threatened to disable its search engine in Australia if it is forced to pay local publishers for news, a dramatic escalation of a months-long stand-off with the government.

A proposed law, intended to compensate publishers for the value their stories generate for the company, is “unworkable”, Google managing director for Australia and New Zealand Mel Silva, told a parliamentary hearing yesterday.

She specifically opposed the requirement that it should pay media firms for displaying snippets of articles in search results.

The threat is Google’s most potent yet as it tries to stem a flow of regulatory action worldwide, but such a radical step would hand an entire developed market to rivals.

At least 94 per cent of online searches in Australia go through the Alphabet unit, according to the local competition regulator.

“We don’t respond to threats,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday. “Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia. That’s done in our Parliament. It’s done by our government. And that’s how things work here in Australia.”

Facebook, the only other firm targeted by the legislation, also opposes the law. The social media platform reiterated at yesterday’s hearing it is considering blocking Australians from sharing news on Facebook, if the law is pushed through.

The legislation is designed to support a local media industry, including Mr Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, that has struggled to adapt to the digital economy.

Google’s tougher stance drew rebukes from lawmakers at the hearing, with Senator Andrew Bragg accusing the tech giant of trying to blackmail Australians and policymakers.

Ms Silva told a panel of senators: “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 described the law as an “untenable financial and operational precedent”.

But the California-based firm has adapted to similar requests in other countries without cutting off the search engine. It stopped showing news results from European publishers on search results for French users last year after local regulators urged it to pay for content, and then on Thursday, the firm said it reached a deal to pay media publishers in the country. In 2014, it shuttered Google News in Spain, following new copyright legislation.

Google is behaving like a corporate bully, said Dr Johan Lidberg, an associate professor at Melbourne’s Monash University who specialises in media and journalism.

“It’s about control and power,” he said. “They’re signalling to other regulators they’ll have a fight on their hands if they do this.”

Ms Silva proposed Google’s News Showcase, where the firm pays select media outlets to display curated content, as an alternative to the Australian legislation.

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