The Splinternet Comes to Australia

Australia's unprecedented media law may change the internet for good

Disclaimer: I work at Google, which is at the center of the Australian media bill that I will talk about this week, but I do not speak on behalf of the company and all of the opinions expressed here are my own.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about The Splinternet. Admittedly, I did not come up with such a creative name, but it refers to the idea that the web is starting to split into different versions as a result of various factors like politics, economics, technology, etc. Depending on whom you ask, some would say that different views of the internet already exist; the Great Firewall in China, which allows the government to control what is and isn’t shown on the internet, has already been in place for years.

The more recent resurgence of the idea has stemmed partly from the belief that tech companies have gotten so large and powerful that they need to be regulated. The issue is that each state or country has a different stance on how (or whether) to control these companies, so we run the risk of having different regulations depending on where we are. This week, we’ll look into the solution that Australia has proposed, and what the implications are for the future of the internet.

Australia’s Media Law

This past week, Australia has pushed ahead with a new law that forces Google and Facebook to pay news outlets for their journalism. Basically, they want Google to pay news sites every time they show a link to their content, and, similarly, Facebook would have to pay whenever someone posts a link to an article on the News Feed. The penalty for non-compliance could be up to $10 million AUD, or $7.4 million USD.

Australia’s news industry has been struggling since before the COVID-19 pandemic, which unfortunately made things worse, and has seen over 100 newsrooms close in the last two years. The new law is an attempt to infuse money back into the industry and “address the bargaining power imbalance,” between digital publishers and news outlets since, according to Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenburg, Google and Facebook combine for 73% of Australian online ad revenue.

While I agree that good journalism should be paid for accordingly (something I wrote about a few weeks ago), Australia’s bill makes no requirements on what the payments must be used for and it actually has limitations regarding which companies can get payments, leaving many small websites out to dry. The bill also seemingly fails to understand that the internet is literally made up of links, and placing a price on these is an attack on free press and is just not how the internet should work.

This could also very well be a case of the government wanting to keep the media industry alive. As we’ve seen in the U.S. the past few years, having a friendly media company can be a powerful ally. Furthermore, those in charge of large media conglomerates can have lots of influence and the government would want to keep them happy.

How have Google and Facebook Responded?

In response to the bill, both Google and Facebook have threatened to pull out of Australia, but only Facebook has actually followed through, putting in place a ban that prevents Australians from sharing or viewing any news from local or international outlets on the News Feed. On the other hand, Google has chosen to sign licensing deals — and are working on more — with a few of the largest publishers, allowing the company to display the publishers’ links in Google News Showcase, a separate tab within the Google News app. It is unclear what they plan to do with links to outlets that they don’t sign deals with.

Regardless of whether you think Google or Facebook is making the right decision, Australians were given a taste of a news-less world on Facebook this week. While it did lead to the rise of other, local news apps, is this the right way for the news industry to move forward in Australia? Restricting a free flow of news, regardless of its partisanship, is in no way in the best interest of the reader.

Which is really what makes me question the motivation here. Readers and citizens of Australia will be the most hurt by a lack of, or biased, news, not the millionaires who own large news companies. It will be interesting to see if Facebook lifts the news ban, as they have reportedly re-engaged in deal talks. It will also be interesting to see whether this was all just a way for Australia to keep the large corporations afloat, and whether they really care about the smaller players. But more importantly, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the world reacts; France, Canada, and other countries are considering similar regulations. If other countries do follow suit, cutting licensing deals in every country does not seem sustainable, so the Splinternet may be coming sooner than we had hoped.