Google has been hiding some Australian news sites from search results, in a move media outlets say is a show of “extraordinary power” as the tech company bargains with the Australian government over financial payment for content.
The Australian government is attempting to impose a new code on Google and Facebook that would force them to negotiate a fair price for displaying local news content.
Google has criticised the proposed code – which would be a world first – in messages to the search engine’s users while Facebook has warned it could block Australians from sharing local news as a consequence.
The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday reported that Google had tweaked its search and news algorithm to bury links to some commercial Australian media outlets for some users.
A Google spokesperson confirmed the company was “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”. The experiments would finish by early February, he told Guardian Australia.
Google sought to downplay the significance of the move by noting the company conducted “tens of thousands of experiments in Google Search” every year.
“In 2018, the value we provided to publishers through referral traffic alone was estimated at $218m ,” the spokesperson said.
“We remain committed to getting to a workable code and look forward to working with the Senate committee, policymakers, and publishers to achieve an outcome that’s fair for everyone, in the interests of all Australians.”
Anecdotal evidence from Guardian Australia readers appeared to confirm that when logged into a Google account, the Guardian Australia website did not appear in search results, which instead returned the Guardian’s Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia pages.
Nine, the publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the AFR, said the result of searches delivered to some Google users “makes it starkly clear that trusted local news is critical to Google’s products”.
“Google is an effective monopoly and by withholding access to such timely, accurate and important information they show clearly how they impact what access Australians have to that,” a spokesperson said.
“At the same time, 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.”
On Tuesday, Mel Silva, the vice-president for Google Australia and New Zealand, claimed that the “overwhelming majority” of submitters to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s consultations had “concerns about key aspects of the code or are downright opposed to it”.
Silva said that Google has accepted arbitration as a “reasonable backstop” to secure investment in news. But the search giant has warned the ACCC’s model is flawed because it considers only news companies’ costs and not Google’s – and encourages “ambit claims”.
Google has also rejected fundamental elements of the code as unworkable, including that it “forces Google to pay to show links in an unprecedented intervention that would fundamentally break how search engines work”, and that it would give news companies “special treatment” in the form of 14 days’ notice of certain changes to algorithms.