In summary

Dr Belinda Barnet explains why Google’s threat proves legislation matters in her speech to the Senate inquiry into Australia’s news media bargaining code

My name is Belinda Barnet, I’m a senior lecturer in media at Swinburne University of Technology. I’ve spent 20 years researching, writing about and making digital media and have published a book on the history of hypertext.  

I’ve looked closely at the history and invention of hyperlinks and how they work in particular. 

I’m going to address just one thing today, and it is an argument that has been put to you several times now in a few different forms, most recently in an ad campaign by Google. 

It is the idea that this legislation will “break” the way the web works. 

As you have heard, when the web was conceived decades ago it was indeed based on some fundamental principles of freedom and openness, transparency, and open linking.  

But that is not the web we have anymore. That’s why I want to respond to this argument. 

Rather than a decentralised, equitable space, we now have a web that is controlled by a couple of major platforms who trade in your data. That is the reality. 

Links from or in these platforms, particularly Google and Facebook, are not “free”, not in the sense that they were when first implemented on computer screens. 

They cost you something: the price is your data. Just hovering over an article or a snippet or any piece of content on these platforms costs you data.  

And they are the gatekeepers of the internet. Australians don’t get a choice about this.  

They like to keep us on their products.

Facebook, for example, is essentially a walled garden that many of us don’t even leave once we’re on it: it’s designed that way. The antithesis of an open web.

Now, Google also claims that “paying for links breaks the way that search works”. 

This is disingenuous at best and misinformation at worst.  

If extracting payment for links, or views, or clicks, or snippets, is breaking search--they’ve already broken it.  These platforms have been extracting data for every click and scroll and hover for years now. From you.

Then they charge advertisers to place advertising based on that data. As in, they sell links. It’s how they make money. 

You might argue that the web began to change the moment cookies were used, or when javascript was invented shortly after that. 

Either way, the argument that this bargaining code will “break” the open web is based on a false premise. The claim that it will “break” free search is based on a false premise. 

The premise is that what we currently have is free - or equitable 

For most Australians, it is not. We need to look at the reality.  

If we are to move towards a future where the web is truly open, then we first need to address the major power imbalance between these platforms and every other citizen of the web.  

The dice are loaded in Google and Facebook’s favour. It was not always so. 

Legislation is needed here. Regulation is needed here.  

Before I finish: if anyone is still seduced by the argument that “this legislation will break the open web or break search”, and you feel I have not sufficiently addressed it, you could also just remove mention of links from the legislation and stick with pay to reproduce, view, or display content.

Be aware, though, that Google and Facebook may then remove snippets and summaries entirely and just display links.

So: this code will not break things. I believe it will be beneficial for our media industry.  Thank you.

View a detailed transcript of the Senate hearing. 

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