If Bing is the answer then Australia is asking the wrong question

Facebook and Google have many sins, but penance should not mean paying for the sins of Australia's media proprietors.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Image: DuckDuckGo

Australia looks set to become the sort of Microsoft monopoly that Redmond has only dreamt about, but rather than being in an area Microsoft is known for -- office suites, Windows, Surface products -- the country is turning to the eternal bridesmaid of search engines, Microsoft Bing.

This is all a result of the Australian government, and opposition parties, lining up behind the Media Bargaining Code that has been making its way through Parliament. If the code is finalised, it could in effect shift money directly out of the pockets of big tech and into the hands of the nation's newspapers and TV stations.

The nation's competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has sought to rein in the tech giants in recent years, with not much to show for it thus far. The code provides an opportunity for the ACCC and the nation's politicians to do something popular by going after offshore multinational tech companies while supporting the fourth estate and going some way to stemming the haemorrhaging within the media industry, or so the official narrative would have you believe.

As someone that has previously called for Facebook to be placed in a regulation straitjacket, you'd be forgiven for assuming that I am in lockstep with the politicians and press gallery for wanting the code to bring the tech giants to heel. But the proposal isn't the right solution to any of these problems. In fact, it could easily make everything a lot worse for all parties.

The headline-grabbing line is Google threatening to pull Search from Australia if the mandatory code comes into being. Google's crass response has arisen as not only does the code create a link tax from the search engine to the media, and only for core news media at that, it would also require for the media to be alerted 28 days prior to upcoming algorithm changes by the tech giants. It would also mean tech giants must hand over some of the data collected on news consumers to the media.

So if you interact with a search listing or article snippet of an Australian news story, the enforcement of the code would not only mean your data is potentially collected by Google, as it would then, without your consent, be handed off in some form to a newspaper owner. The current draft of the code states that tech giants must list all the data they collect, even if it's not handed over, and have a process for media to get their hands on it.

Effectively, the government is proposing to carve out a special arrangement for article snippets or links on Google searches or Facebook feeds where media businesses get all the benefits without needing to develop or run those areas of the page. Little wonder Google and Facebook have said the code is unworkable and threatened to leave.

See also: Why an all-Australian public search engine is a ridiculous idea

Naturally, media businesses love it -- they've finally found a willing ear to the "Google is stealing our content by sending us readers" argument, as well a way to make back some of the revenue that they've farted away over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. When the internet arrived, the newspapers did not embrace it, thereby allowing their lunch to be eaten by classified and real estate sites. And in the cases where they owned massively successful sites in those areas, they've since spun them out and sold the golden goose.

Now, after years of cost cutting, the charge is that Google, Facebook, and the internet in general have ruined the media industry and forced companies to shed hundreds of journalists -- which isn't completely wrong, but the main cause is the foot owner that holds the smoking pistol, not the recent arrival that simply sells a better mousetrap.

What the code is proposing is analogous to car makers last century needing to prop up horse-driven cart makers because of an overarching sense of hurt feelings. The code is simply a subsidy for a failing business model, with a bunch of some other companies' intellectual property thrown in. It is a far cry from the call to embrace agility, nimbleness, and innovation that former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for at the start of his tenure.

And as if all that was not enough, there was last Monday. On that day, the government proudly said that should Google make good on its threat to pull out of Australia, that Microsoft was ready to step into the breach.

Later in the day, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said if Google left, the market would react and fill the gap presented by the "commercial opportunity".

Fletcher was asked if Bing was a sufficient alternative for Google.

"I don't hold myself out to be somebody providing product ratings and clearly Google has a much bigger market share in the Australian market than Bing," he said. "But what is clear by the meeting initiated by Microsoft … is they're very significantly interested in the market opportunity in Australia should Google wish to withdraw its presence in Australia.

"There will be a strong market response."

It's probably a fair assumption over the past few weeks in Canberra, political staffers have been trying out the Microsoft search engine to ensure it is up to scratch.

In my view, Bing lags by quite a distance. For generalist or casual searching, it does the job, but the second you want to dive deep into a subject -- or in my case seek out technical information -- it pales in comparison to Google. This also applies to the "Bing with a quacker in the corner" search engine also known as DuckDuckGo. I have it set as a default in a couple of browsers I use across desktop and mobile, and the g! shortcut to repeat the search on Google gets more of a workout than a drop-in replacement should get.

Another possible alternative to Google is Startpage, but it simply uses Google as an API and the results of Startpage lag behind those of Google itself, in much the same way Chromium is the poor cousin of Chrome.

If the government and the ACCC really wanted to attack the lifeblood of the tech giants, they would use the Privacy Act review to get to something that looked like Europe's GDPR, and potentially go further.

Of course, that will never happen since the ACCC has raised the idea of Australia having a common transaction ID for online advertising that simultaneously protects consumer privacy -- an oxymoron if ever there was one. Similarly, the media organisations will state that Google and Facebook collect copious amount of data on users while stopping you from reading their content to ask if you, dear reader, would please lower your ad blocker so they can do the same.

Rather than engaging in a market intervention and undertaking a form of wealth redistribution -- which is what the conservative press would say if a party of the left was trying this on -- the government could come to the party by boosting funding of regional and public interest journalism or giving payroll benefits for employing journalists out of its general revenue. It could even have a catchy name that the current government loves to style its initiatives with: YarnKeeper.

Read more: Google launches News Showcase in Australia against Media Bargaining Code backdrop

But that idea is unlikely to happen as even though journalism is important enough to attack a convenient or perceived enemy, it is not important enough to actually make a case for proper and continued funding. The inconvenient truth of keeping the ABC sweating on lower funding while expecting it to do more might be raised again and not shouted down this time.

Instead, the take-it-or-leave-it proposal is for Google and Facebook to pay money directly to the pockets of media companies, with no guarantee that any of that money will actually reach journalists or result in the rollback of job cuts. The chances of it funding a round of executive bonuses as more scribes are sent onto the unemployment line are very high.

In Australia, if a law has bipartisan support, it is either an obviously needed action such as recent stimulus measures, or a very bad idea that one side of politics cannot bring itself to be seen to be standing against. For the Media Code, the proposal has tripartisan support, and the wider economy has no need for it -- it's that bad.

As if to prove the point, the Greens last week floated the idea of a publicly-owned search engine. Yikes! And this is before we consider how bad Australia has been at building anything digital.

If the politicians have their way, Australia will be a Bing nation. A blessed haven for media giants to mooch off tech giants while writing column inches in defence of the free market and small government.

This opportunity should be seized to improve the market and boost privacy by ensuring the data of Australians is not vacuumed up by businesses large and small, offshore and onshore. Instead, the government and its cheerleaders are taking the quick out and hailing the replacement of one tech multinational with another as an earned victory. It is no such thing.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

Updated at 11:20am AEST, 8 February 2021: fixed spelling of heel


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