In what has become a first of its kind showdown between a sovereign government and a tech company, Google has threatened to shut down its search engine service in Australia after lawmakers introduced legislation that would force Google to pay for the news it delivers on its site. The significance of the standoff extends far beyond the Aussie borders as several internet giants, Google and Facebook in particular, have been dealing with government threats for increased regulation everywhere from the EU to the US.
This is an unprecedented and complex issue for many reasons. The internet has long been touted as a bastion of free speech and little regulation. While these principles were established in the web’s nascency and in response to a vastly different online landscape, many consumers still cling to these tenets as intrinsic to the internet’s purpose. Today’s internet, however, has become socially and economically impactful to an extent far beyond anything Al Gore could have ever envisioned.
There is a nary a job or social function you can perform without reaching for your laptop or smartphone, and more often than not the tasks we do are all controlled by just a handful of companies. Microsoft dominates the workplace with Windows, Office, Teams, and Skype; Facebook owns social media with Instagram and Messenger; most of us rely on Amazon for everything we shop for from clothes to groceries, we can’t even adjust our own thermostat without asking Alexa for help. I’m not necessarily saying these companies are intrinsically power hungry or even intentionally monopolistic, but what this situation has shown us is when this oligopoly of behemoths decides it no longer likes a country’s laws, it is well within its rights to deny its citizens the right to iMessage each other or Google search for information. What happens when companies decide to wield this power in response to laws not necessarily pertaining to themselves? This is of course a very doomsday, slippery slope scenario, but one that is nevertheless worth considering.
I don’t know how the situation in Australia will play out, but it’s personally hard for me to imagine a compromise won’t be struck. Google parent company Alphabet doesn’t want to leave a continent worth of people’s money on the table and Australian lawmakers would be chastised by their constituents for denying them G suite services. If I were the Australian Monarch however, and no had chance of being voted out, I would hold my ground. I think the precedent of a company dictating laws is far too dangerous and I think the government has more leverage anyways.
The most interesting part of this ordeal is truly what will happen moving forward and the precedent this outcome will set. How much power a single company has over the laws of a country and how much it can influence its elections are extremely pressing questions that affect quite literally the entire world. It’s extremely important the we give this consequential issue the proper amount of deliberation and thoughtfulness it deserves. This is uncharted territory and nobody has the answers, but Larry and Sergey can rest assured we’ll all be Googling to find them.