Google Showcase: Their way or the highway?

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You have to wonder what happened when Google's Sundar Pichai belled Scotty, Josh and Paul on Zoom earlier this week, but it looks as if a pre-emptive strike has followed.

After being on hold for some time, the search company's Google News Showcase product launched today, with Antony Catalano's Australian Community Media, The Conversation, Schwartz Media, and Crikey, Private Media and Solstice Media - all of which are either owned or chaired by Eric Beecher - on board.

And the evidence Google ANZ managing director Mel Silva gave to the Senate committee the day before she gave birth, that "if this version of the code were to become law, it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia"? We must have imagined it, reports yesterday claiming that her comments had been misquoted.

Australia's populist prime minister Scott Morrison claimed a "constructive" conversation with Pichai, and while News Corp's The Australian had a picture of him and treasurer Josh Frydenberg gathered around the Zoom screen, with communications minister Paul Fletcher in the background, we're not party to what was said.

News Showcase is the product Google wants - the subject of individual three-year agreements with publishers - and there's a suggestion that it would like to see those payments embraced within the government's mandatory code when it is agreed.

Google would still like it revised to meet their preferences.

Others have a different view, perhaps fearing that the deal puts the already-dominant Google in a yet stronger bargaining positioning just when there may be an opportunity to bring its near monopoly under control.

No mention yet of News Corp or Nine Entertainment joining the News Showcase launch, although they were understood to have been in earlier negotiations for the product. Beecher apparently sees in it, a greater share for companies such as his own than they would get with a code he fears would be driven by News Corp.

The synthesis between populism and politics may dictate that we don't get to swap out Google and start again with Bing, though it could be a nice idea, reimagining search and rebuilding parts of the web without Google's product, but it isn't going to happen.

News Showcase - for which publishers apparently get a set monthly fee to curate articles, not for links, even though in some cases, users get access behind publishers' paywalls - is just the latest offering in a process which has seen Google shell out millions in bounty ever since the European Union started legal action against it a decade ago.

There's been a small fortune there for the asking, which Google claims is its support of public interest journalism, and publishers who can live with themselves are right to collect the moolah while it lasts.

Our guess is that it won't, unless - or perhaps even if - Google stays free to exercise its monopoly, and trample all in its path. In a post today, APAC head of news, web and publishing product partnerships Kate Beddoe - who appears to be the local spokesperson while Mel Silva enjoys some maternity leave - writes of Google's "investment in this product" as a "significant step forward in helping secure a strong future for Australian news" and reflecting "our continuing commitment to the financial sustainability of the news industry".

As they say at the moment, 'yeah, no'.

• Two interesting quotes after the News Showcase launch, both courtesy of The Australian:
ACCC chair Rod Sims, saying that News Showcase misses the point, and still didn't address key concerns including the imbalance of power. "There has never been as issue with Google offering and doing deals involving Showcase or any other Google service. The issue is whether Showcase should replace Google Search as the only service subject to the provisions under the code.

"If the arbitration only involved Showcase, the assessment under the code would fail to account for the value Google derives from users being able to access news media business content via its core Google Search platform, which is the source of the bargaining power imbalance this code was designed to address."

I liked the comment attributed to "a Nine spokesman" that it was normal practice for monopolies to "put an offer, in the form of Google Showcase, but not offer to negotiate.

"It has to be all on their terms and that is not an approach we will participate in."

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Samples of Google News Showcase from today's post; The Australian features Morrison, Frydenberg and Fletcher's Zoom link-up; and Nine's the Sydney Morning Herald's John Shakespeare has fun with new mum Mel Silva

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