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What’s happening in Australia?

Australia has proposed a bill that would oblige Google and Facebook to pay licensing fees to Australian media companies to share their journalistic content. Non-compliance will result in millions of fines. In response, Google threatens to block Australian users from accessing its search engine if the bill becomes law.

Mel Silva, managing director of Google Australia and New Zealand, told the Australian senate committee that his company would have no other choice but to block access to Google’s search engine in Australia if the bill was adopted in its current form. Although, he said, this was the last thing Google wanted.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison later stated that his country would not be intimidated, saying, “We are not responding to threats.” He added that “Australia made our rules for the things you can do in Australia. It is done in our Parliament.”

Why has confrontation increased?

Google says it is willing to negotiate with publishers about paying a license fee for content. The tech giant, however, argues that Australia’s proposed legislation goes too far. This will oblige Google to pay not only when providing extensive previews of media content, but also when sharing links to such content. This, said Silva, would break the modus operandi of the search engines.

The bill will also set out an arbitration model in which an Australian judge will determine how much Google should pay if the company fails to reach an agreement with the publisher. This mechanism divides opinion, with Google arguing it creates untold financial risks for the company.

Morrison: ‘We don’t respond to threats’

What’s at stake?

“Search engines make a lot of money from media content, publishers earn less,” said Christian Solmecke, a Cologne-based lawyer who specializes in media and internet law. However, Google argues that publishers benefit from this platform, as users are redirected to media content when indexed on Google Newsfeed and elsewhere.

But publishers want a larger share by accepting licensing fees. “Billions are thus at stake for Google,” said Solmecke. He doubts the tech giant will follow through on its threats and shut down search engines in Australia. “After all, the search engine is a basic part of the digital world.”

But the dispute in Australia highlights a global dilemma. Recently, Google temporarily blocked certain Australian media content for some users in the country. The company announced that the move was just a test run, although it is widely interpreted as a show of strength: Go against Google and you risk disappearing from its search results, facing dire economic consequences. For this reason, Solmecke said, “denying Google the right to use your content will remain a purely theoretical choice.”

Is the EU planning a similar law?

In spring 2019, the EU adopted it additional copyright directives. All member states must now translate the directive into national law and adopt additional national copyright laws. In accordance with Australia’s proposed media bill, the EU directive aims to ensure publishers get a share of the revenue that internet platforms like Google earn when sharing journalistic content. Tech companies like Google generate revenue by, for example, placing ads next to search results.

However, the directive didn’t sue many companies like Google and Facebook. “The additional European and German copyright laws are current and will remain narrower than the Australian law,” said Stephan Dirks, a specialist in copyright and media law in Hamburg. In contrast to the Australian bill, the EU directive allows technology platforms to display short media footage for free. And it also doesn’t create an automatic arbitrage model.

European confrontation looming?

Although the EU’s additional copyright laws are more limited than the planned Australian law, experts have not ruled out that EU member states clash with Google. “This gives us an idea of ​​how Google will react to the adoption of the EU’s additional copyright law,” said Dirks. He recalled how Germany had introduced additional copyright laws in 2013, prompting Google to threaten to remove all media content from its search results if the law was enforced. “It will certainly happen soon when copyright reform has been implemented,” he predicted.

Solmecke, too, said the EU should keep an eye on the dispute between Australia and Google. “The reaction of the big tech companies can be seen as a clue to their future behavior in Europe,” he said.

France has translated the EU’s 2019 additional copyright directive into national law. Google then struck a deal with a French publisher regarding a license fee.

Most of the EU member states have not passed their own additional copyright laws. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that Google’s threat will have an impact on the national law-making process, said Dirks.

This article was translated from German.

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