Google blocks Australian media outlets as part of an unprecedented ‘experiment’ to hide news

Google has admitted it is burying articles from Australia’s biggest media outlets in an experiment observers claim is a threat to block news to avoid paying for it.

Users this month complained they were no longer able to see articles from national news websites including Daily Mail Australia in the search engine’s results.

Google said it changed its algorithm to block specific news sites as part of a ‘short-term experiment’ affecting only about one per cent of its users.

But media outlets claim the move represents a dramatic show of power from Google as the company fights plans to make it pay news publishers for their content.

Google executives claimed the proposed industry code – which would issue $10million fines for non-compliance – is ‘unworkable’.

Media outlets have hit out at search engine giant Google after the company admitted it is burying news stories as part of a short-term 'experiment'

Media outlets have hit out at search engine giant Google after the company admitted it is burying news stories as part of a short-term ‘experiment’

A Channel Nine spokesman accused Google of willfully stopping Australians from accessing ‘timely, accurate and important information’ by tweaking its algorithm. 

‘Google are now demonstrating how easily they can make Australian news providers who fall out of their favour effectively disappear from the internet – a chilling illustration of their extraordinary market power,’ Nine said.

Swinburne University media lecturer Belinda Barnet told Daily Mail Australia the search engine was burying news stories to prove media outlets need it more than it needs them.

‘Google has decided to experiment with our ability to access local news content because they want to prove a point,’ she said. 

‘The point they’re trying to prove is the referral traffic is worth more to media outlets in dollars than the advertising revenue Google makes from news content.

‘They want to prove to the Australian government news doesn’t mean anything to them and they’re happy to lose the content if they’re made to pay for it.’

A Google search for ‘Daily Mail Australia’ brings up the most recent articles for some users but others can only see links to the publication’s social media pages or its Wikipedia entry.

Google Australia managing director Mel Silva has launched a war of words with media outlets after claiming a proposal to make search engines pay for news would undermine the internet 'for millions of Australians'

Google Australia managing director Mel Silva has launched a war of words with media outlets after claiming a proposal to make search engines pay for news would undermine the internet ‘for millions of Australians’

Some users can only see links to MailOnline's social media pages or its Wikipedia entry when searching for the website on Google

For others, the search brings up a link to the homepage and the most recent articles as normal

Some users can only see links to MailOnline’s social media pages or its Wikipedia entry when searching for the website on Google

Some readers complained they couldn’t find the site on Google or any articles when searching for news on any topic.

‘This started happening several days ago and I was really confused – I thought it was just me as others I knew had no problem,’ one reader said. 

‘I had to find out what was going on through the media and was disgusted that Google would do this without even informing me. 

‘This outrageous change has already made my work far more difficult as I need to stay up to date with the news.

‘What if someone was in a bushfire zone and needed the latest information… they could die. News is also more important than ever during the pandemic.’

Twitters users criticised the sudden change in the way Google filters its news searches

Twitters users criticised the sudden change in the way Google filters its news searches

Readers reported similar issues when searching for stories on The Australian, Guardian Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age. 

Twitters users hit out at the sudden unannounced change in the way Google is filtering its news searches.

‘They’re flexing their muscles. Don’t annoy them in any way is their message,’ one wrote.

Google said the experiment was one of ‘tens of thousands of experiments in Google search’ the company made every year.

Why Google says it is hiding news stories from major media outlets 

‘Every year we conduct tens of thousands of experiments in Google Search,’ a Google spokesman said.

‘We’re currently running a few experiments that will each reach about 1% of Google Search users in Australia to measure the impacts of news businesses and Google Search on each other.

‘In 2018, the value we provided to publishers through referral traffic alone was estimated at $218million.’

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‘In 2018, the value we provided to publishers through referral traffic alone was estimated at $218m,’ it said.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission warned on the same day that it is preparing a regulatory war against Google, Facebook, and Apple.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said the media bargaining code was just the beginning of a series of new government measures aimed at restricting the power of the internet giants.

‘These are trillion-dollar companies, they control the content and of course, they have all the data,’ Mr Sims told The Australian Financial Review.

‘People sometimes don’t realise News Corp and Nine are nothing compared to Google, you wouldn’t get that sense, but it just shows what a good job Google’s public relations do.’

Google Australia managing director Mel Silva has repeatedly criticised the ACCC’s proposed media code.

The world-first news media bargaining code is being scrutinised by a Senate committee which is due to report on February 12, before the laws are voted on in parliament. 

Ms Silva said in an open letter published last week while some changes had been made to the code ‘the law still threatens to fundamentally damage Google search’.

‘If the code became law today, it would break the way Google search works undermining the benefits of the internet for millions of Australians, from small business owners across the country, to literally anyone trying to find information online,’ she said. 

Ms Silva said Google did not object to the principle of paying to support journalism.

‘We’re proposing to reach deals to pay publishers through Google news showcase, a program we’ll invest $1.3 billion in globally over the next three years,’ she said.

The search engine giant said the experiment was one of 'tens of thousands of experiments in Google Search' the company makes each year

The search engine giant said the experiment was one of ‘tens of thousands of experiments in Google Search’ the company makes each year

‘It will help news businesses publish and promote their stories online, paying for their editorial expertise and beyond-the-paywall access to their journalism, rather than for links.’

She said it offered a fair and practical way to meet the original goals of the law. 

The Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance union said the business model of Google and Facebook has ‘literally destroyed newsrooms around the world’.

The government estimates for every $100 spent on advertising, $53 goes to Google, $28 goes to Facebook and $19 goes to other media.

The TRUTH about how new laws will affect Google’s users 

‘We need to let you know about new Government regulation that will hurt how Australians use Google Search and YouTube’

Not true. The new law will make no difference at all to how Australians use Google Search and YouTube. You will be able to search both in exactly the same way you do at present. The only change will be that Google will have to pay for Australian news content which at the moment they use for free. As Google’s Australian revenue in 2019 was $4.8 billion it should not find this difficult.

‘A proposed law, the News Media Bargaining Code, would force us to provide you with a dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube, could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, and would put the free services you use at risk in Australia.’

Not true. The Code will not force Google to provide a worse service, on the contrary it contains provisions to prevent it removing Australian news websites and replacing them with foreign ones. It will not lead to your data being handed over to news businesses, big or small. This is the ACCC’s response Google’s claim: ‘Google will not be required to share any additional user data with Australian news businesses unless it chooses to do so’. Nor will the Code put free services at risk. The ACCC says: ‘Google will not be required to charge Australians for the use of its free services such as Google Search and YouTube, unless it chooses to do so.’

‘The way Aussies search every day on Google is at risk from new regulation. You’ve always relied on Google Search and YouTube to show you what’s most relevant and helpful to you. We could no longer guarantee that under this law. The law would force us to give an unfair advantage to one group of businesses – news media businesses – over everyone else who has a website, YouTube channel or small business … We’ve always treated all website owners fairly when it comes to information we share about ranking.’

Blatantly untrue. Google’s search algorithms are a secret ‘black box’, and rankings are regularly changed without warning or explanation, sometimes with catastrophic effects for businesses.

To give just one example: June 2019 Google made an algorithm change which reduced the Daily Mail’s search visibility by 50pc worldwide – meaning dramatic reductions in the number of Daily Mail stories appearing in your search requests. There was no warning or explanation – nor did Google inform you, the user. Three months later our search visibility was suddenly restored, again without warning or explanation. Many other websites have had similar experiences.

The Code simply provides that Google will have to give warning and explanation of changes that could impact traffic to a news website – and tell it how it can minimise any damage. If Google thinks that is unfair, fine – they can provide the same information to every website. Now, that would be fair.

‘Your Search data may be at risk. You trust us with your data and our job is to keep it safe. Under this law, Google has to tell news media businesses ‘how they can gain access’ to data about your use of our products.’

Not True. As the ACCC says, Google will not have to share any more user data than it does already. The ACCC’s explanatory notes make clear it is lists of types of data Google must provide to news media businesses, not the data of individual users. In any case, why should users trust Google more than any other business? Only last month the ACCC launched Federal Court action over the alleged misuse of users’ personal data by Google, and Google has previously been fined millions of dollars in Europe for misusing users’ data.

‘Hurting the free services you use.’

Not true. Google’s services aren’t free – you pay for them with your data, which Google collects in order to sell advertising targeted at you. Google doesn’t pay news media businesses millions of dollars. It currently pays nothing at all for the news it uses – and only began offering to pay when it realised the ACCC was going to call its bluff by introducing legislation.

It has also bought control of digital advertising by taking over smaller businesses to create a virtual monopoly, where it acts as both buyer and seller in digital advertising markets it controls, and for which it makes the rules. It forces news media businesses and advertisers to use its services and charges both millions of dollars, some it in hidden fees. The result is consumers pay more for the goods they buy. These anti-competitive practises are under investigation by the ACCC here in Australia and by regulators in other countries.

This law wouldn’t just impact the way Google and YouTube work with news media businesses – it would impact all of our Australian users, so we wanted to let you know.

Not true. The only impact this law will have on Australian users is that intended by the ACCC – that instead of Australian journalism dying through being starved of revenue by monopolistic internet giants, it will have a sustainable future, for the benefit of all Australians. Oh, and Google – global annual revenue in 2019 $161 billion dollars – might make just a little less profit

You’ll hear more from us in the coming days – stay tuned.

True, regrettably. Google has won immunity from libel laws all over the world by claiming it has no opinions. Well, it does when its bottom line is under threat. It runs one of the world’s largest lobbying operations and have no doubt, Australian legislators will be bombarded with misinformation as Google tries to overturn the ACCC’s proposals. Watch out! 

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