Search engine and social media site policy changes explained

Australians may soon be caught in a high stakes battle between a hostile foreign power and our national government.

Rather than facing missiles and invading armies, we are facing the threat of withdrawal of important services from the two global Big Tech corporations who have come to dominate the way we use the internet.

In a last ditch bid to hold off regulation, Google is threatening to close down its search engine in Australia, while Facebook wants to prevent Australians sharing news.

It’s part of a looming war of attrition with the Morrison Government to prevent laws that would force them to pay media companies for their use of fact-based journalism.

If they make good their threat, there will likely be civilian casualties in the many small businesses who have come to rely on Google ad search to attract business.

Where we used to look for tradies and takeaways through the Yellow Pages, now we type in a couple of words and Google crunches all that personal information they collect about us to tell us what we want.

Without these promoted searches, we will need to work a bit harder to search out the services we need while the small business operators will need to find new ways of promoting their businesses.

This may create a few short-term headaches, but the good news there are alternate search engines they can fill the breach. Bing is the Microsoft-owned search engine that could fill the role and there’s also Duck Duck Go which prides itself on not doing the creepy data collection.

There are a range of other ways Google could hurt Australians: we rely on Google for maps, for email, and many businesses and government departments use the suite of Google tech services.

If Facebook blocks news from their network it will damage the experience of its users; they are making a conscious choice to deprive their users of the fact-base which is the tonic for the disinformation that has become the standard stock of their platform.

In targeting Australia, Google and Facebook are deploying the Chinese proverb to “kill one to warn a hundred’ because they know governments around the world are looking for ways to hold them to account and closely watching how the current battle plays out here.

Some would argue that as a private business they have a right to withdraw their services from any marketplace. But both Google and Facebook have built their footprints in Australia by offering much more than a business transaction: from Google’s business and schools initiatives to Facebook media partnerships, they have asserted they are partners in building our digital world.

As such you don’t just get the right to pull the pin when you don’t like the rules a democratically elected government puts in place.

So as the battle looms its worth reflecting on how much we have come to rely on the two companies.

Last year the Centre for Responsible Technology released a paper called ‘Tech-Xit’, assessing the impact of the withdrawal of these two platforms from Australia market.

We found that Google’s removal of search would have a particular impact on small businesses and that alternate online marketplaces need to be supported to provide an alternative.

We also found business and government increasingly reliant on the Google tech stack: from maps, to docs, to mail and bespoke products.

Encouraging local technology solutions and actively supporting Australian companies through government purchasing policy would be important in reducing our reliance on one company.

Finally, we need to recognise for many Australians Facebook plays an important role in creating social connections.

Serious thought should be given to developing a publicly funded, public purpose network that connects people without the surveillance capitalism business models that push us into tribes and divide us.

If the current standoff turns to an all-out tech war there will be collateral damage. But so long as our elected representatives remain united Australia will emerge stronger for the ordeal.

Peter Lewis is the director of the Centre for Responsible Technology.

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