CANBERRA, Australia — Timothy Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, says Australian plans to make digital giants pay for journalism could set a precedent that renders the Internet as we know it unworkable.
“Specifically, I am concerned that that code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online,” Berners-Lee told a Senate committee scrutinizing a bill that would create the News Media Bargaining Code.
It’s a question dividing proponents and critics of the proposed Australian law: does it effectively make Google and Facebook “pay for clicks” and might it be the beginning of the end of free access?
The battle is being watched closely in the European Union, where officials and lawmakers are drafting sweeping new digital regulations.
Google contends the law does require it to pay for clicks. Google regional managing director Melanie Silva told the same Senate committee that read Berners-Lee’s submission last month she is most concerned that the code “requires payments simply for links and snippets.”
“The concept of paying a very small group of website or content creators for appearing purely in our organic search results sets a dangerous precedent for us that presents unmanageable risk from a product and business-model point of view,” Silva said.
Facebook regional vice president Simon Milner agreed that the potential cost for news under the code was “entirely uncapped and unknowable.”
Uniquely, Australia’s code includes a negotiation safety net. An arbitration panel would prevent digital giants from abusing their dominant negotiating positions by making take-it-or-leave-it payment offers to news businesses for their journalism.
In the case of a standoff, the panel would make a binding decision on whose best-offer wins.
Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Center for Responsible Technology think tank, said the monetary value of public interest journalism has yet to be established.
“The reason it’s such as ephemeral process, if you like, is that no one’s ever tried this before,” Lewis said.
“How do you value fact-based news absent advertising? News has always been valued on the back of how much ads that the outlet can sell. Because Google and Facebook have dominated the advertising market and taken that out of the equation, we’re now trying to work out the value of public interest journalism,” Lewis added.
Google has reacted to the threat of compulsory arbitration by stepping up negotiations on licensing content agreements with Australian media companies through its own News Showcase model.
Facebook responded Thursday by blocking users from accessing and sharing Australian news.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg amended draft legislation after weekend talks with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, to make it clear the platforms would not be charged per news snippet or link.