If Bing is the answer, then Australia is asking the wrong question

Image: DuckDuckGo

Australia looks poised to become the kind of Microsoft monopoly Redmond only dreamed of, but rather than being in something Microsoft is known for – office suites, Windows, Surface products – the country is turning to the eternal maid of honor of search engines, MicrosoftBing.

This is all a result of the Australian government and opposition parties lining up behind the media bargaining code that made its way through Parliament. If the code is finalized, it could indeed transfer money directly from the pockets of big tech into the hands of the country’s newspapers and TV stations.

The country’s competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has sought to rein in the tech giants in recent years, with little to show for it so far. The code offers the ACCC and politicians across the country an opportunity to do something grassroots by taking on offshore multinational tech companies while supporting the Fourth Estate and helping to stem the bleeding within the industry. of the media, at least the official narrative would have you believe.

As someone who’s ever called for Facebook to be placed in a regulatory straitjacket, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I’m in tune with politicians and the press gallery in wanting the code to bring the tech giants to heel. But the proposal is not the right solution to any of these problems. In fact, it could easily make the situation worse for all parties.

The headline-grabbing line is that Google is threatening to pull search from Australia if the mandatory code goes into effect. Google’s crude response arose because not only does the code create a tax on search engine-to-media links, and only for major news outlets, but it would also require the media to be alerted 28 days before the upcoming algorithm changes by tech giants. It would also mean that tech giants have to hand over some of the data collected on news consumers to the media.

So if you interacted with a search listing or an article snippet from an Australian news article, the application of the code would not only mean that your data is potentially collected by Google, because it would then, without your consent, transmitted in one form or another to a newspaper owner. The current version of the code says tech giants must list all data they collect, even if it’s not transmitted, and have a process for the media to get their hands on it.

Indeed, the government is proposing to put in place a special arrangement for article snippets or links on Google searches or Facebook feeds where media companies get all the benefits without needing to develop or run these areas. of the page. No wonder Google and Facebook declared the code unenforceable and threatened to leave.

See also: Why an all-Australian public search engine is a ridiculous idea

Naturally, media companies love it – they’ve finally found a listening ear to the ‘Google is stealing our content by sending us readers’ argument, as well as a way to recoup some of the revenue they’ve farted over of the course of the 1990s and 2000s. When the Internet arrived, newspapers didn’t embrace it, leaving their lunch to be eaten by classifieds and real estate sites. And in cases where they had massively successful sites in those regions, they have since created them and sold the goose.

Now, after years of cost-cutting, the charge is that Google, Facebook and the internet in general have bankrupted the media industry and forced the companies to get rid of hundreds of journalists – which is not completely untrue, but the root cause is the proprietary foot holding the smoking gun, not the recent arrival which merely sells a better mousetrap.

What the code proposes is analogous to the automakers of the last century who needed to support horse-cart manufacturers due to a general sense of hurt. The code is simply a subsidy for a failing business model, along with a bunch of intellectual property from other companies. It’s a far cry from the call to embrace agility, agility and innovation that former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for at the start of his term.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, there was some last Monday. That day, the government proudly declared that if Google followed through on its threat to pull out of Australia, Microsoft was ready to step into the breach.

Later in the day, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said that if Google left, the market would respond and fill the void presented by “the business opportunity”.

Fletcher was asked if Bing was a good enough alternative for Google.

“I don’t consider myself a product reviewer and clearly Google has a much larger market share in the Australian market than Bing,” he said. “But what is clear from the meeting initiated by Microsoft … is that they are very interested in the market opportunity in Australia if Google wishes to withdraw its presence in Australia.

“There will be a strong market response.”

That’s probably a fair assumption over the past few weeks in Canberra, political staffers have been trying out the Microsoft search engine to make sure it’s up to date.

In my opinion, Bing lags far behind. For general or casual research, it gets the job done, but the second you want to dig deeper into a topic – or in my case, research technical information – it pales in comparison to Google. This also applies to the “Bing with a Quack Around” search engine, also known as DuckDuckGo. I’ve set it as default in a few browsers I use on desktop and mobile, and the g! A shortcut to repeat the Google search is more effective than a direct replacement should be.

Another possible alternative to Google is Startpage, but it just uses Google as its API and results from Startpage lag behind Google itself, similar to how Chromium is Chromium’s poor cousin.

If the government and the ACCC really wanted to attack the lifeblood of the tech giants, they would use the privacy law review to come up with something akin to EU GDPR, and potentially go further. .

Of course, that will never happen as the ACCC has floated the idea of ​​Australia having a common transaction identifier for online advertising that simultaneously protects consumer privacy – an oxymoron if ever there was one. Similarly, media organizations will state that Google and Facebook collect a lot of user data while blocking you from reading their content to ask if you, dear reader, would like to lower your ad blocker so they can make same.

Rather than engaging in market intervention and undertaking some form of wealth redistribution — as the conservative press would say if a left-wing party attempted this — the government could come to the party by increasing funding for regional and public administrations interest journalism or granting social benefits for the employment of journalists out of its general revenue. It might even have a catchy name that the current government likes to style its initiatives with: YarnKeeper.

Read more: Google launches News Showcase in Australia amid media bargain code

But that idea is unlikely to come to fruition, because even if journalism is important enough to attack a convenient or perceived enemy, it is not important enough to warrant appropriate and continued funding. The inconvenient truth of keeping the ABC sweating over less funding while expecting it to do more could be brought up again and not shouted out this time.

Instead, the take-it-or-leave-it proposition is for Google and Facebook to pour money directly into the pockets of media companies, with no guarantees that the money will actually reach journalists or result in the removal of content. jobs. The odds of him funding a series of executive bonuses as more scribes are sent to the unemployment line are very high.

In Australia, if a law has bipartisan support, it is either clearly needed action, like the recent stimulus, or a very bad idea that one side of politics cannot come to terms with. to be considered as opposed. For the Media Code, the proposal has tripartite support, and the economy at large does not need it – it’s that bad.

As if to prove the point, the Greens last week floated the idea of ​​a public search engine. Ouch! And that’s before considering how bad Australia has been at building anything digital.

If the politicians are successful, Australia will be a Bing nation. A blessed haven for media giants to poke fun at tech giants while writing columns in defense of the free market and small government.

This opportunity must be seized to improve the market and strengthen privacy by ensuring that Australians’ data is not sucked up by companies large and small, offshore and onshore. Instead, the government and its cheerleaders are stepping out and hailing the replacement of one multinational tech company by another as a deserved victory. It is not such a thing.


The Monday morning opening is our opening salvo for the week in technology. Since we operate a global site, this editorial is published Mondays at 8:00 a.m. AEST in Sydney, Australia, or 6:00 p.m. Eastern time on Sundays in the United States. It is authored by a member of ZDNet’s Global Editorial Board, made up of our top editors in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.

Updated at 11:20 a.m. AEST, February 8, 2021: fixed heel spelling