Showing all posts tagged australia:

The Framing Continues

The framing of Australia's battle against Google and Facebook continues in a new piece with the inflammatory title Australian law could make internet ‘unworkable’, says World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

Here's what Sir Timothy had to say:

"Specifically, I am concerned that that code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online"

This is indeed the problem: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on the internet, so I won't comment on the legalities of the Australian situation — but any requirement to pay for links would indeed break the Web (not the Internet!) as we know it. But that's not the issue at risk, despite Google's attempts to frame the situation that way (emphasis mine):

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."

As far as I can tell, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code does not actually clarify one way or the other whether it applies to links or snippets. This lack of clarity is the problem with regulations drafted to address tech problems created by the refusal of tech companies to engage in good-faith negotiations. Paying for links, such as the links throughout this blog post, is one thing — and that would indeed break the Web. Paying for snippets, where the whole point is that Google or Facebook quote enough of the article, including scraping images, that readers may not feel they need to click through to the original source, is something rather different.

Lazily conflating the two only helps unscrupulous actors hide behind respected names like Tim Berners-Lee's to frame the argument their own way. In law and in technology, details matter.

And of course you can't trust anything Facebook says, as they have once again been caught over-inflating their ad reach metrics:

According to sections of a filing in the lawsuit that were unredacted on Wednesday, a Facebook product manager in charge of potential reach proposed changing the definition of the metric in mid-2018 to render it more accurate.

However, internal emails show that his suggestion was rebuffed by Facebook executives overseeing metrics on the grounds that the "revenue impact" for the company would be "significant", the filing said.

The product manager responded by saying "it’s revenue we should have never made given the fact it’s based on wrong data", the complaint said.

The proposed Australian law is a bad law, and the reason it is bad is because it is based on a misapprehension of the problem it aims to solve.

In The Frame

Google and Facebook have been feuding with the Australian government for a while, because in our cyberpunk present, that's what happens: transnational megacorporations go toe-to-toe with governments. The news today is that Google capitulated, and will pay a fee to continue accessing Australian news, while Facebook very much did not capitulate. This is what users are faced with, whether sharing a news item from an Australian source, or sharing an international source into Australia:


I see a lot of analysis and commentary around this issue that is simply factually wrong, so here's a quick explainer. Google first, because I think it's actually the more interesting of the two.

The best way to influence the outcome of an argument is to apply the right framing from the beginning. If you can get that framing accepted by other parties — opponents, referees, and bystanders in the court of public opinion — you’re home free. For a while there, it looked like Google had succeeded in getting their framing accepted, and in the longer run, that may still be enough of a win for them.

The problem that news media have with Google is not with whether or not Google links to their websites. After all, 95% of Australian search traffic goes to Google, so that’s the way to acquire readers. The idea is that Google users search for some topic that’s in the news, click through to a news article, and there they are, on the newspaper’s website, being served the newspaper’s ads.

The difficulty arises if Google does not send the readers through to the newspaper’s own site, but instead displays the text of the article in a snippet on its own site. Those readers do not click through to the newspaper’s site, do not get served ads by the newspaper, and do not click around to other pages on the newspaper’s site. In fact, as far as the newspaper is concerned, those readers are entirely invisible, not even counted as immaterial visitors to swell their market penetration data.

This scenario is not some far-fetched hypothetical; this exact sequence of events played out with a site called CelebrityNetWorth. The site was founded on the basis that people would want to know how rich a given famous person was, and all was well — until Google decided that, instead of sending searches on to CelebrityNetWorth, they would display the data themselves, directly in Google. CelebrityNetWorth's traffic cratered, together with their ad revenue.

That is the scenario that news media want to avoid.

Facebook does the same sort of thing, displaying a preview of the article directly in the Facebook News Feed. However, the reason why Google have capitulated to Australia's demands and Facebook have not is that Facebook is actively trying to get out of dealing with news. It's simply more trouble than it's worth, netting them accusations from all quarters: they are eviscerating the news media, while also radicalising people by creating filter bubbles that only show a certain kind of news. I would not actually be surprised if they used the Australian situation as an experiment prior to phasing out news more generally (it's already only 4% of the News Feed, apparently).

There has also been some overreach on the Australian side, to be sure. In particular, early drafts of the bill would have required that tech companies give their news media partners 28 days’ notice before making any changes that would affect how users interact with their content.

The reason these algorithms important is that for many years websites — and news media sites are no exception — have had to dance to the whims of Facebook and Google's algorithms. In the early naive days of the web, you could describe your page by simply putting relevant tags in the META elements of the page source. Search engines would crawl and index these, and a search would find relevant pages. However, people being people, unscrupulous web site operators quickly began "tag stuffing", putting all sorts of tags in their pages that were not really relevant but would boost their search ranking.

And so began an arms race between search engines trying to produce better results for users, and "dark SEO" types trying to game the algorithm.

Then on top of that come social networks like Facebook, which track users' engagement with the platform and attempt to present users with content that will drive them to engage further. A simplistic (but not untrue) extrapolation is that inflammatory content does well in that environment because people will be driven to interact with it, share it, comment on it, and flame other commenters.

So we have legitimate websites (let's generously assume that all news media are legit) trying to figure out this constantly changing landscape, dancing to the platforms' whims. They have no insight into the workings of the algorithm; after all, nothing can be published without the scammers also taking advantage. Even the data that is provided is not trustworthy; famously, Facebook vastly over-inflated its video metrics, leading publications to "pivot to video", only to see little to no return on their investments. Some of us, of course, pointed out at the time that not everyone wants video — but publications desperate for any SEO edge went in big, and regretted it.1

Who decides what we see? The promise of "new media" was that we would not be beholden to the whims of a handful of (pale, male and stale) newspaper editors. Instead, we now have a situation in which it is not even clear what is news and what is not, with everybody — users and platforms — second-guessing each other.

And so we find ourselves running an experiment in Australia: is it possible to make news pay? Or will users not miss it once it's gone? Either way, it's going to be interesting. For now, the only big loser seems to be Bing, who had hoped to swoop in and take the Australian web search market from Google. The deal Google signed with News Corporation runs for three years, which should be enough time to see some results.

🖼️ Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

  1. Another Facebook metric that people relied on was Potential Reach; now it emerges that Facebook knowingly allowed customers to rely on vastly over-inflated Potential Reach numbers


So I finally got to go to Australia and use those weird slanty bits on my international power adaptors. I also met and ate kangaroo - not the same actual individual, but still. That photo above is taken within shouting distance of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, by the way.

Lovely country, even in the depths of winter. What was truly amazing to me was the contrast between the depths of geological time on show, and how short the human history is.

Let me qualify that statement a little. I live in the heart of Europe, where the landscape has been shaped very actively and extensively by human activity over thousands of years. My hometown was founded 2200 years ago - no typo, that's two thousand two hundred years ago. Actually the date of foundation was 218 BC. Of course the place was inhabited for ages before then, but that is the date of founding of the current town, with the Roman street layout still clearly visible today.

This is to say that I am not discounting Aboriginal cultures, or the terrible impact that European colonisation has had on them. However, the cities are very recent overlays on a landscape that had remained relatively untouched until then. Canberra, as seen in the photo above, makes that very obvious, with huge stretches of primal bush right in the centre of the city. Sydney too makes a great deal of its Big Dig, where they are digging up remains… from the late 18th century. By my hometown's standards, that's yesterday. Much of the housing stock in the centre of town is older than that!

This is why I love travel: experiencing such a different perspective. America is kind of the same, to the point that there is a saying that "in America, a hundred years is a long time; in Europe, a hundred miles is a long way". This kind of builds on my point from yesterday.

People, including many Italians, bemoan the lack of infrastructure around here. The problem is that as soon as you sink a shovel in the ground, you hit a priceless historical artefact. Then you have to spend months digging it out with toothbrushes and tweezers, and then you get to shovel a few more loads before there is another clunk and everything has to stop again. I shudder to think of how many times things have just been quickly reburied so as not to delay work... Here's an example from my home town: this monstrosity was built over the city amphitheatre, and it looks like the replacement will still not allow the ruins to be visited.

This is very much like what happens in established corporations. You can't just sink a shaft or dig a trench, because there are very good chances you will interfere with something that's already there. You also wind up with your brand new shiny thing still relying on thousand-year-old culverts for its drainage. You have to allow for all of these things when you plan what you want to build next.

If you have the advantage of building on an empty plain, it is much easier just to go build whatever it is1 without having to worry about the layers of things that people already built on top of other things that were already in that spot. Startup companies have the advantage that young cities have, of being able to go out with measuring tools and a clean sheet of paper and draw up an ideal system. Those of us with a bit more history have to make messy compromises with our past choices.

Update: Here is the trip report
on my work blog.

  1. Yes, I am papering over the issue of people who might have been roaming that plain before you arrived. The map is not the territory, and the analogy is imperfect.