The power of Big Tech companies in our democracies was never more obvious than when Google, Facebook and Twitter decided to ban US President Donald Trump after he incited violence at the US Congress building.
Even among those who welcomed Big Tech’s decision to take responsibility for the harm caused by material posted on their platforms, the censorship of a sitting president has prompted calls for greater scrutiny of tech companies internal rules.
Here in Australia an equally important debate about the role of Big Tech in our democracy has come to the fore in the past week.
The Big Tech companies are locked in a battle with the government over a media code which could force them to pay to use content generated by traditional media companies such as Nine Entertainment, publisher of the Herald.
The federal government is reviewing draft legislation which orders Google and Facebook to negotiate with media companies for the use of news content and if they cannot agree the law would insist on compulsory arbitration to set a fair price.
The proposal was a key recommendation of an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission last year which found that the Big Tech companies were abusing their dominant positions and stealing revenue from the media companies that report on issues vital to democracy.
With the bill due for debate in Parliament next month, the media companies have ramped up their rhetoric. Melanie Silva, the head of Google Australia, on Friday even raised the possibility that the $1.8 trillion company would block all Australians from using its ubiquitous search engine.
While Google “only” earns about $4.3 billion in Australia from search engine advertising, it is playing hardball because it fears that Australia will set a precedent for similar legislation now being considered in other bigger markets.
While Google might have been bluffing, it and Facebook have also threatened to block Australian news sites which cause them trouble in negotiations. Google admitted it has already been blocking Australian news websites including the Herald as an experiment.
The threats should not distract from the fundamental issue which is that tech companies have a responsibility to pay a fair price for the use of media content generated by others.
Google and Facebook claim that the price they pay for news should be balanced against the service they provide to media companies by introducing millions of people to their product.
If so, rather than issuing threats they should engage with the legislative process and ensure that the rules for adjudicating disputes are fair and practical.
Google might have thought it was smart to play hardball but if there is one thing Australians do not like it is a bully. The threat has elevated a narrow financial dispute between big companies into an issue for all Australians, who use Google for about 95 per cent of their internet searches.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has rightly said that Google did itself a disservice by its threat. Big Tech, for all its wealth, depends on the support of its tens of millions of users. If Google were to leave Australia, it could find Australians happily migrate their online searches to rivals such as Yahoo, Bing and DuckDuckGo.
As their power and influence has grown, Google and Facebook find themselves being asked to act with greater care and responsibility towards the democracies that have allowed them to flourish. They should not place themselves above elected governments.
Note from the Editor
The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.