A war is raging on the Australian media scene. At the behest of the Oz government, Google has agreed to pay publishers for their content – which the search engine in effect sells advertising against.
Facebook, on the other hand, has decided to remove any media companies that employ professional journalists from its platform in Australia; thereby avoiding having to pay said publishers for their content (which Facebook also used to sell advertising against) under the proposed new rules.
Two very different responses to increased government regulation. No doubt other countries will follow with their own versions of this legislation, which is yet to be officially ratified by the way. It will be fascinating to see how things play out globally. There is already talk of the UK and European Union adopting similar laws.
However, the whole episode got me thinking about the immense power the Goo-book duopoly now has. At this stage, the internet is a public utility. And yet it’s real estate is owned by private sector companies who the critics say are willing to wield power in whichever way they see fit, in order to protect their business models. Even, it seems, if there is a negative effect on the citizens/customers and businesses that helped build the platforms in the first place.
There is an age-old theory that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The trouble with Google and Facebook is that they are swimming in so much cash and high-level influence that many fear they have become real-world practical examples, sadly proving the theory to be true.
The platform earthquake in Australia is just one case. For me personally, even though I disliked Donald Trump intensely, I thought it was wrong that social networks could in effect cancel a US president.
It sets an awful precedent for the future and will no doubt leave the 75 million Americans who voted for him seething (even more so than when in their natural combative state).
We don’t even need to get into Cambridge Analytica territory or the many other public relations disasters Facebook has been forced to apologise for.
Let’s not forget, Google has had its own fair share of scandals too. And while, as a ‘user’ (who, yes, realises I am the product), I love using both Google and Facebook– it does all leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Speaking of which, anyone who has been to their offices will tell you how the space, luxury and design is reminiscent of the 2017 tech dystopia movie The Circle. It’s not quite a cult, but it feels a little strange inside their buildings– to say the least.
Added to that, both companies are not that willing to share the pie when it comes to media and marketing partners, hence the possible law change in Australia. Try getting event sponsorship or advertising spend out of either, if you’re a media company. The somewhat arrogant response is usually along the lines of ‘we don’t pay, as we have the brand already so really you should be paying us to participate’.
You feel like saying: “Yeah, but you do realise people are starting to dislike your brand greatly, right?” Added to that, if you’re brave enough to let a Googler or Facebooker speak at one of your events, you will quickly feel the arm of an overzealous PR handler on your shoulder.
They will politely tell you which topics have to be avoided, and how there must be strictly no questions from the audience. Stage-management, as a dark art, at its finest.
And while neither Google nor Facebook is responsible for the programmatic ad fraud that now runs into billions of dollars every year, they are certainly part of the ecosystem that enables it. Vanity metrics are also somewhat of a poison in both business and societal terms.
As are down-the-rabbit-hole misinformation, trolling, narcissistic image obsession and behavioural economics techniques that provide the dopamine hit which creates device addiction in all of us.
There’s a lot to dislike. However, and here’s the paradox, at the same time the products are so great that they have benefitted billions of people and businesses. Search engines are kind enough to give you any knowledge you happen to be curious about within a millisecond. Social networks enable you to connect with friends, families, groups and businesses around the world with a simple tap.
You don’t expect all that for free, do you? Come on people, there is of course a price to pay. To be fair, it’s abundantly clear that we are all willing to become the product in order to add the convenience, learning and joy to our lives.
For the truth is, the world would be a poorer place without Google and Facebook. But the reality, however, is that they can’t go on unchecked without causing long-lasting damage to society. Politicians have to get ahead of the curve somehow and start regulating untrammelled big tech before these masters of the universe enter politics themselves.
Anyone else out there suspects that Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have designs on the White House? At that point, it becomes too late. You just wouldn’t be able to put the genie back in the bottle.
It will no doubt be difficult, given the lack of technical expertise in the political corridors of power. But if nothing else, rightly or wrongly the Australian intervention has at least proved that it’s possible to assert some sort of control. So let’s not sleepwalk into a world whereby the worst elements of Goo-book outbalance all the good stuff. Nobody wants that, Silicon Valley aside.