(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

Given that the government’s attempt to heist billions in revenue from Google and Facebook is founded on the lie of content theft, and the mainstream media is lined up as one in support of its efforts, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we have seen some particularly nonsensical claims on the subject.

At the weekend former Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood — who presided over the company’s share price halving and multiple iterations of sackings — leapt to the defence of the government in an opinion piece in which he spoke of his late-’90s “trip to Silicon Valley to see what the fuss was all about”.

“It was starkly apparent the ‘rivers of gold’ — the monopoly stream of jobs, homes and car ads that made my sister publications The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age so profitable — were going to one day dry up,” he wrote.

Except of course they didn’t “dry up”. As he admits later: “The digital classified pure plays like Seek, REA and Domain offered a more efficient customer platform than newspapers and won the battle.”

Strangely absent from Hywood’s piece is who owns those more efficient platforms: News Corp (61%) owns REA and Nine owns Domain (60%). News Corp has long worked in joint ventures with Seek.

Even sillier was the government — cheered on by the media — lauding Microsoft as some sort of replacement for Google if the latter follows through on its threat to pull out of Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Paul Fletcher, the low-energy dud of a communications minister, sang Microsoft’s praises this week as “a giant American corporation, an information technology powerhouse” which “is very significantly interested in the market opportunity in Australia, should Google choose to withdraw its presence in search in Australia”.

Mainstream media journalists dutifully cheered.

Well Fletcher is, unusually, right: Microsoft is a giant American corporation. So giant that in the late-’90s and 2000s it faced repeated anti-trust and anti-competitive litigation from governments, including the US. In 2004 it got hit with a then-record half-billion-dollar fine by the EU. In the US it narrowly avoided a break-up order after it agreed to changes to its operating system, which it has used — by embedding Internet Explorer — to destroy competitors like Netscape.

Those changes allowed smaller competitors — including Google — to survive and succeed with superior products.

Microsoft is thus the monopolist’s monopolist — which apparently Morrison and Fletcher are only too happy to hand Australian internet users to.

And in case you think this is ancient history on the internet, Microsoft has in recent years been trying to crush Slack with its (manifestly inferior) Teams software.

But the silliest has come from the Greens today, with Sarah Hanson-Young calling for the “government to investigate setting up a publicly owned search engine that could be the gateway to the internet for Australians … that is accountable to the public and not shareholders”.

Hanson-Young must be fairly optimistic to think the government that wrecked the NBN, bungled the 2016 census, gave us the failed COVID tracking app and presided over the robodebt disaster could manage a search engine.

More to the point, why anyone would trust this government with its search history (Hanson-Young calls for “global best practice data privacy standards”) is a mystery, especially given its proposals to give security agencies free rein to spy on and even alter material on Australians’ computers.

Perhaps the announcement is Hanson-Young ironically drawing attention to the fact that this government is so contemptuous of basic rights and so incompetent that it can’t be trusted on anything to do with the internet.

There’s a more serious point underneath all this silliness: small and medium businesses rely heavily on Google to reach potential customers online, and in particular reach customers who are looking for the product or service they sell. Cavalier talk of driving Google out of Australia and how little it will affect us fails to take into account the impact on businesses that rely heavily on internet advertising.

They appear to be a distant second to the interests of big media companies and a village idiot government.

Peter Fray

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