Australia leads the charge against the internet front pages

Australia seems set to make Google and Facebook pay for scraping traditional media, an idea which would hugely undermine their basic business models if it became widespread – and could fundamentally change the way the internet works.

shutterstock 197656919 credit archiwiz 06.10.20 australia leads the charge against the internet fro
Archiwiz /

Famously, the social aggregator site Reddit likes to boast that it is the ‘front page of the internet’. But in fact, as this is written Reddit lies way down at number 18 in the Alexa internet rankings. In the number one spot, of course, is Google: the true front page of the internet. In at number two is YouTube, owned by Google. Facebook is at number six and the rest of the top ten, as one might expect, is filled by Chinese sites.

As far as the Western world is concerned, then, the gateways to the internet are Google and Facebook. The two huge web services both make billions in advertising revenue because billions of people use these platforms to find content which is of interest to them.

That’s where things get a bit interesting. Facebook does own a lot of content itself, the floods of chitchat, marketing, video snippets, ramblings and photos of their lunch that its users supply for free. But Facebook, probably correctly, feels that it needs better than this to keep people coming back. Thus a lot of the prominent content on the huge platform is news and features from more or less conventional publishing organisations who pay significant sums to create such output.

Google has even less of its own to offer, with no mountains of user-supplied fluff (though it does have unseen mountains of detailed files on every user). Instead the original web giant simply assumes that if anyone anywhere puts any information on a server without a special label telling Google to back off, it’s OK for Google to take and keep a copy of that information. Later, in response to a search query from a user, Google then considers that it will be OK to take a headline and snippets of that content and serve it up in a list of other search results next to its own adverts. As far as Google is concerned, the process is entirely automated, the content is free and costs are almost nothing. Even if it makes very little money on each search, much of that money will be pure profit.

Google naturally doesn’t like to pay for humans to decide what’s important and ensure that the content it presents high up its lists is timely, truthful and properly written. It does place a value on human work that it hasn’t paid for, however: it does this most obviously by placing content from news organisations high up in its results, even in ordinary searches not made using Google News.

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