Peter Coleman: Could News get its way with laws to split Google?

News Corp Australia wants Google split in two, in a Baby-Bell-like solution to the search platform's monopoly.

Yesterday Australasian executive chairman Michael Miller followed up on a week of comment - including his own and those of News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson - on how to deal with what Rod Sims, chairman of national regulator the Australian Competition & Consumer Com­m­ission, is already referring to as an unfair advantage in attracting advertising dollars.

Miller is in no doubt about it, his submission urging the competition regulator to consider separating the Google advertising and search businesses, a "bold solution" to what he sees as abuse of the tech giants' substantial market power in "unfairly" taking advertising dollars from Australian media businesses.

"Divestment of Google Search will create a competitive market for search engines, mobile operating systems, internet browsers, the supply of digital advertising and the supply of ad tech," he says.

Australia's situation is unusual if not unique, with an ACCC inquiry into the subject already underway and calling for transparency around news and advertising algorithms, and hinting at regulation.

But split Google in two, as the US government had ordered the split of AT&T's phone monopoly in the 1980s? This is hardly a Bell System situation, and Australia is in an uneven, 'David and Goliath' position in challenging the global tech giant.

And yet, with a federal election looming, Australia's media giants - and News in particular - are well-placed to ask for what they would like.

News Corp Australia has spent recent months strengthening its position with the launch of an outspoken Sky News TV free-to-air channel - which did not exist a year ago - replete with a line-up of acerbic right-leaning commentators committed to ensuring it becomes 'your election channel'.

A good friend to have, but potentially a dangerous enemy, and Liberal politicians will not have forgotten how News' tabloids shredded Australia's last prime minister ahead of the leadership spill last August.

Miller says the ACCC should keep up its focus on the tech giants' market power in media and advertising markets, and urges that it be given powers to oversee and monitor the digital platforms' behaviour.

Earlier this week, Robert Thomson wrote of a "day of reckoning" for the platforms, praising the "more contemplative crew of contemporary politicians and regu­lators not merely dazzled by the digital or falling for the fashionable".

Could News get its way with the divestment Miller says "may represent the most effective and conclusive remedy" the regulator could recommend? Could an incoming Australian government - and News, with its track record of backing winners, will know the country is poised for change - be persuaded to increase the ACCC's powers? Could this be the ripple than becomes a wave?

Watch this space.

Peter Coleman

• A NewsMediaWorks summary of submissions to the ACCC inquiry is here

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