Trapped in a Google vortex

By warning that Google could block its search engine in Australia, Google Australia managing director Melanie Silva has transformed a fight over payments for news into pondering our survival in the digital age.

Australians now wonder whether they can survive without Google Search and other Google trinkets that use search, such as Maps, Android Auto in cars and even the Google Home personal assistant. They wonder whether they could break free from Google and Facebook if they needed to, now they are so pervasive in our lives.

The fear is that Google and Facebook will bully and dominate both government and through it the public who depend on their services.

The contemptuous way Google acted when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission lost year reviewed its proposal to acquire Fitbit is case-in-point.

Katharine Kemp, an antitrust expert at the University of New South Wales Law & Justice, says the ACCC didn’t actually give the green light for the Google Fitbit merger from an Australian perspective. “It told Google in December that it wouldn’t accept Google’s proposed undertaking about conditions that might make the merger acceptable.

“Google went ahead with the merger and completed the transaction on 14 January before the ACCC had finished investigating the merger. So the ACCC says this is now an enforcement investigation on its part, to decide whether it will take action against Google,” Dr Kemp said.

“Clearly, the ACCC hadn’t yet satisfied itself that this acquisition was not likely to substantially lessen competition in any market. It seems Google knew that, but it went ahead with the merger anyway.”

Google’s threat to ban search shows again it is playing hardball in Australia. The image of a company that gives away wonderful free online tools is being replaced by one of an organisation that gets nasty quickly once challenged.

There is doubt Google would ban search here as it would risk much of its $4.8bn annual Australian revenue to do so. When asked why Google wouldn’t just delete news links and leave search intact, Google says it would be too hard to distinguish between news and non-news. This is nonsense. Start-ups like NewsGuard are categorising news outlets across the world. Just make a list as they do.

Google says it is in favour of paying news organisations, and has proposed its News Showcase platform as a vehicle for it, with a $1.3bn budget over three years. However News Showcase lets Google set the rates to publishers who come cap-in-hand.

In the end the issue is who decides payments and Google seems happy with its own arbitration which it controls. However it whines at the prospect of an independent arbiter deciding payments to media organisations under the ACCC’s mandatory bargaining code.

Thanks to Ms Silva’s threat, people are pondering life without Google. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told Prime Minister Scott Morrison that his company is ready to grow its Bing search engine and fill the void.

The fledgling DuckDuckGo, an increasingly popular privacy-focused search engine, also is up for the challenge: “Australians don’t have to wait for government ­action to escape Google’s pervasive data collection,” a spokesman says.

The company says daily searches on DuckDuckGo have skyrocketed from 30 million to 100 million in just a year. Other search engines such as Ecosia also see an opening.

Greens communications spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young has suggested a publicly owned search engine.

“The government needs a plan for how Australians will continue to be able to access essential information online if Google Search were to be taken offline,” she says. “We need an independent search engine that is run in the public interest not for the profit of a corporate giant.”

Locating essential healthcare services through Search is increasingly common in both urban and rural Australia, says Umbo, which offers speech and occupational therapy for families in rural Australia.

“If Google were to be removed as a channel for generating leads and customers, this would pose a significant challenge for some families finding the right service provider,” says Umbo Weh Yeoh.

Whatever search engine(s) take over would need to step up and offer the granular detail that Google has in the past. Can we weather the Google search abyss?

The Australian this week also was contacted by a privacy-focused US platform which believes the internet would be a better place if it wasn’t dominated by big tech.

Barbara Tallent, CEO of The @ Company, heads a platform that features third-party peer-to-peer apps in development.

Whereas Signal and Telegram led the way in 2020 for private messaging with end-to-end encryption, she says the next generation of messaging apps will let users control where their messages go and even remove them after sending.

She says the has begun offering de-Googled phones. “Keep your eye out in 2021 for phones from OSOM, which will not surveil your data for their own purposes.”

She says new apps will offer us true peer-to-peer file sharing, where completely encrypted files can be transmitted without being stored forever on a server in the cloud, along with new ways of sharing your location privately with family and friends.

In social media, there are applications such as Mastodon which run peer-to-peer without a central server. No one big tech firm is in control.

“These apps allow everyone to own their own data, share it with whom they want to share it with, and then take it back if they want to.”

Ms Tallent acknowledges it’s one thing to build and promote these new-age applications, but another to entice millions, even billions of social media users to adopt them.

Many of us have more than 10 years of our memories on Facebook, including priceless interactions with friends and hundreds of photos. Thanks to Facebook, we have renewed contact with friends from childhood, school, university and workplaces. We’ve joined Facebook groups that explore our hobbies and interests and met new people from across the world.

However, the constant barrage of inflammatory posts, SPAM and misinformation in feeds makes you want to quit the social medium. But you risk losing that history and social interaction if you do.

There’s also the businesses that depend on Facebook and Google advertising and benefit from the targeting and reach they offer. Many people have spent years building online portals, becoming influencers, and cultivating large followings.

Disengaging with Google and Facebook looks impossible, but will we be enslaved to them if we stay? Can we keep big tech under control?

Antitrust law (in Australia competition law) will continue to play a part here. These laws attempt to limit monopolies, but should they be stronger? Should Australia and the US start preventing big tech from acquiring more start-ups, so that start-ups coalesce as eventual competition?

Dr Kemp says competition regulators become concerned when companies have the power to act as they please, either in the prices they charge or the quality of their product, without having to worry about what consumers or rivals will do.

She says one very important question is whether Australia should have an unfair practices prohibition that might address the gap between the misuse of market power law and the very high threshold for unconscionable conduct under consumer law.

She also sees privacy law as crucial in reining in big tech’s excesses.

“The current review of our federal Privacy Act is critical if we are to have any hope of reining in the power of the digital platforms.

“Australian consumers need a privacy law that’s fit for the digital era and we don’t have one. The ‘tech giants’ have gained enormous economic power through their pervasive collection and extensive use of consumers’ personal data – largely without consumers’ knowledge.

“Australia’s privacy law is out of date. Our privacy regulator is underfunded. These are problems that need to be addressed promptly and wholeheartedly, both to limit economic power and protect consumers.”

Google‘s threat to ban search has highlighted this broader debate on powerful big tech and our continual growing dependence on it, a concern the federal parliament hopefully will have in mind when it deliberates on mandatory bargaining code law.

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