The Australian, ABC, Australian Financial Review, The Age, The Guardian Australia and The Sydney Morning Herald are among the media outlets that have not appeared in the search results of around 1% of Australian users since 13 January, the date on which Google admits that it began its “experiments.”
The experiments are supposedly intended to measure the correlation between media and Google search and are due to end at the start of February. Neither the media outlets nor Google search users were notified in advance of the consequences of the experiments, namely that they would be deprived of their usual access to many news sources.
“The platforms must stop playing sorcerer’s apprentice in a completely opaque manner,” said Iris de Villars, the head of RSF’s Tech Desk. “Most Australians use Google to find and access online news, and these experiments confirm the scale of the power that platforms like Google exercise over access to online journalistic content, and their ability to abuse this power to the detriment of the public’s access to information. They have a duty to be transparent and to inform their users, a duty that is all the greater in the light of the impact that the current and future experiments can have on journalistic pluralism.”
Google conducts tens of thousands of tests on its search engine every year. The experiments that Google and other platforms carry out usually test design changes, algorithmic modifications or new functionalities on some of their users in order to study how they behave and to guide future changes.
This is not the first time one of these experiments has impacted online journalistic pluralism. Facebook, for example, tested a new functionality called “Explore” in six countries – Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia and Sri Lanka – from October 2017 to March 2018. This experiment, in which independent news content was quarantined in a not-very-accessible secondary location, had a disastrous impact on journalistic pluralism in these countries, with traffic to local media outlets falling dramatically. In Cambodia, many citizen-journalists lost a large chunk of their readers, with the result they had to pay to restore traffic to their sites.
Google’s experiments in Australia have come at a time of tension between the platforms and the Australian government, which has proposed new law, called the News Media Bargaining Code, under which platforms such as Google and Facebook would have to share advertising money with media companies.
The two tech giants have reacted to the proposal with hostility. Facebook has said it would prevent Australian media outlets and users from sharing journalistic content on its Facebook and Instagram platforms, while Google has added a pop-up message to its search results warning Australian users that “your search experience will be hurt by new regulation.”
When asked about the details of these experiments, their purpose and about transparency towards media outlets and users, Google just referred RSF to an existing, general press release.