Home >Opinion >Columns >Prepare for the next Great War: Big Tech versus the Nation-State

In my first column this year, I predicted that the next Great War will not be between nations, but between large technology companies and countries. It is gratifying and worrying that this seems to be playing out already.

Google started it by firing a missive to the Australian government, declaring that it would stop its ubiquitous search service if the government approved a recent legislation that would force it to pay media companies for linking to their news. Facebook closely followed by declaring that it will stop Australian users from sharing or posting links to news items if this bill were passed. The Australian government responded in a similar tone, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying, “We don’t respond to threats. Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia. That’s done in our parliament. It’s done by our government. And that’s how things work here."

Tech platforms have been in the news recently more for privacy-related concerns, and of harvesting user data for almost usurious profits. They have also been accused of influencing elections, accelerating mass conspiracy theories, de-platforming the president of the United States. As if all this was not controversial enough, why butt heads with the prime minister of a large, powerful country? The answer is that this war cry is an inevitable culmination of a debate which has been simmering for a long time. Media companies have griped that platforms like Google and Facebook profit from their hard journalistic work, while paying them nothing for it. They claim that this has resulted in plummeting advertising revenues and closures of many newspapers. It has also led to a decline of quality journalism, as media companies cannot afford to pay professional journalists any longer.

On the other hand, tech platforms claim that they actually benefit the media industry by directing to it hordes of traffic, as millions of users click through to them. They also assert that the Australian law would violate the principle of an open web. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, told an Australian Senate that “the code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online. The ability to link freely, meaning without limitations regarding the content of the linked site and without monetary fees, is fundamental to how the web operates." The managing director of Google Australia argued in a similar vein, saying that this amounted to asking people to recommend a few cafes to a friend—and then getting a bill from the cafes for sharing that information. The fact, however, is that tech platforms go far beyond mere linking, or ‘sharing information like a friend’. They preview the news, show pictures, curate the content, and monetize it through ads. As Peter Lewis, director of the Center of Responsible Technology, said in The New York Times: “…they don’t just give you information about where to get coffee—they follow you to the cafe, watch what you order and where you go next, then sell that knowledge to companies that want to market you something else."

Curiously, the matter does not seem to be about payments: just a few hours before its bellicose announcement, Google agreed to pay news publications in France. The issue seems to be about control and power.

The Aussie law proposes that if Google and media companies disagree on the price for news content, an independent arbitration body will fix it. In France, on the other hand, Google has set the criteria for deciding the price. If the media company disagrees, this goes to court and gets stuck for years. The Aussie law will hasten this process, and bolster the weaker side, which is its media. Australia has said that this will level the field and address uneven bargaining powers. For Google and Facebook, this means that the ‘balance of power’ shifts to a third party, something they cannot tolerate. Another aspect of Canberra’s law is that tech companies would be required to give media a 28-day notice before changing the algorithms that decide what news appears where. This is anathema to them, since it makes them reveal their manipulative strength, their black-box recommendation engines.

“I think Google and Facebook are seriously worried that other countries will join in Australia’s effort," said professor Johan Lidberg of Monash University. “This could eventually cause substantial revenue losses globally and serious loss of control." It will be interesting to see who wins this Great War: Big Tech or the Nation-State.

Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and founder of Digital Matters

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