How Google’s latest battle affects us all

Left in the dark: Google says the new law leaves it with no choice.

Should access to Google search be a human right? As the tech giant vows to leave Australia if new regulations come into force, some worry its departure could put vital freedoms at risk.

Are the Tokyo Olympics cancelled? What will Joe Biden do as American president? How many coronavirus cases are there in Melbourne? What will the weather be like tomorrow?

These are the things Australians wanted to know this weekend. To find out the answers, they opened their smartphones and searched on Google. Within seconds, a world of information was at their fingertips.

But this may be about to change. A fierce row has broken out between the tech titan and Australia’s lawmakers after the nation introduced a world-first law to make Google and Facebook pay media organisations for using their news content. Now, Google has threatened to remove its search engine from Australia altogether.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the law is necessary. Tech platforms gain customers and make money from people who use their services to read the news.

Meanwhile, the news industry itself, which is vital for a healthy democracy, is dying – Australia’s print media has seen a 75% decline in advertising revenue since 2005.

One thing is clear: Google is an internet giant. Available in 192 countries, its search engine handles an astonishing 63,000 searches every second. In Australia alone, the company has 19 million users – nearly 90% of the market share. Last year, its profits in the country amounted to an incredible £2.25bn.

Many now believe Google is using its huge influence to blackmail the Australian government.

“Today’s egregious threats show Google has the body of a behemoth, but the brain of a brat,” said Chris Cooper, the executive director of Reset Australia, on Friday.

“When a private corporation tries to use its monopoly power to threaten and bully a sovereign nation, it’s a surefire sign that regulation is long overdue.”

Google’s threat is powerful. Tech experts warn that other search engines are simply not equipped to fill the gap Google would leave behind.

The fact that Google is a monopoly is a good thing, they say. Every time a person uses its search function, Google uses the information to make the search engine better, giving people more relevant results. Indeed, without its millions of users, Google would not know how to answer your questions.

Now, Australians face losing this valuable tool for good.

The boycott threat is a stark reminder of what many have been saying for years – in the digital era, access to Google should be considered as much of a human right as free speech or the right to education.

“Access to the internet is critical for the realisation of human rights in the modern world, and that includes the tools and services which Google and Facebook provide,” argued Joe Westby, a tech researcher for Amnesty International, in 2019.

“People all around the world are reliant on these platforms in order to express themselves freely, to access information online and to engage in society.”

So, should access to Google search be a human right?

Searching for answers

Of course, say some. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that freedom of information is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression. Today, it is Google, more than any other search engine, that people around the world rely on to access information. The fact that the company is threatening to take away this essential service is reprehensible.

Definitely not, say others. Google is a corporation, not a human right. Companies should be allowed to operate wherever they choose, without interference. And the dire warnings of an information blackout are overstated. If Google disappears overnight in Australia, another search engines will inherit its millions of users – and all the advantages a monopoly brings.

You Decide

  1. Do you rely on Google to access the news?
  2. Do big tech companies have too much power?

Activities

  1. Design the logo and branding for a new search engine for the Australian market. How will you persuade people your search engine is the best?
  2. Use the expert links to read the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then, in groups, draw up your own document setting out some new basic rights for the digital age, such as the right to use Google’s search engine.

Some People Say...

“Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”

Sid Meier (1954 - ), Canadian-American programmer and designer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that we are increasingly reliant on Google as a source of news and information. One 2016 survey of 33,000 people from 28 different countries found that 63% of people trust “search engines” as a source of news. In comparison, only 53% of respondents trusted online-only media organisations. And in the US, another study found that people trust Google more than religious leaders, the American government, scientific studies and even teachers.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether Google is essential to our human rights, or if it is actually the very organisation that threatens them the most. In his report for Amnesty International, Joe Westby warned that Google and Facebook are violating people’s right to privacy, and by extension, their rights to freedom of thought. “The companies’ dominance over the global public square means that you’re forced to submit to a system that is predicated on rights abuse,” he said.

Word Watch

Facebook
If the new law goes ahead, Facebook says it will remove news from its feed for all Australian users.
Egregious
Shockingly bad. Surprisingly, the word egregious used to be a compliment, used to describe someone who had a remarkably good quality or skill.
Behemoth
An extremely large and powerful company or organisation. The term comes from the Hebrew word meaning “beast.”
Reset Australia
A campaign group which lobbies for regulations on big tech firms.
Monopoly
When a company dominates a sector or industry. A company is said to be a monopoly when it has a market share of 25% or more.
Sovereign nation
A sovereign state is a political entity that is represented by one centralised government that has sovereignty over a geographic area.
Search function
Up to 15% of Google searches are entirely new queries - nobody has ever searched them before. In 2007, that figure stood at 20-25%.
Relevant results
Google gains its advantage through a phenomenon known as network effects, which occurs when a product gets more valuable with each additional user. Telephones also rely on network effects – if just one person had a telephone, it would be useless.
Reprehensible
Disgraceful – something that deserves to be condemned.

Subjects

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