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‘Fundamental challenge to free and open internet’: Google VP Vint Cerf slams media code

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Mr Cerf’s submission comes as representatives from Google and Facebook prepare to give evidence at a public hearing held by the committee on Friday.

The tech giants intensely oppose the code in its current form, which will force them to strike commercial deals with publishers to compensate them for the value of their news content.

However, in a major revision from an earlier draft version, the code’s framework now provides for a two-way value exchange, allowing the tech giants to argue during the arbitration process that they provide news companies with millions of dollars in referral traffic each year.

Major media companies including News Corp and Nine Entertainment Co, publisher of this masthead are strongly supportive of the code and have been pushing the government to urgently legislate it. Executives from both companies will also give evidence at Friday’s hearing in a panel alongside representatives from the Guardian and Australian Associated Press.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg introduced the bill to legislate the code during the final sitting week of Parliament last year, describing it as a “world first” reform that was designed to address the bargaining power imbalances between digital platforms and media companies.

It followed a months-long drafting and consultation process led by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC).

The bill will be debated and voted upon by the Parliament after the committee reports its findings on February 12.

Mr Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP protocols – the communications architecture for the internet – said he was not writing on behalf of Google but rather in his capacity “as a computer scientist and individual who cares deeply about the Internet’s contributions to society.”

He said search links were the “cornerstones of open access to information online” and requiring Google to pay news outlets to provide links to their news content “undermines one of the fundamental principles of the Internet as we know it today”.

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He urged Senators to propose amendments that would remove any requirement to pay for links in search.

His arguments align with those made by Google Australia Managing Director Mel Silva, who argued in an open letter earlier this month the code would “break the way Google Search works” and “dismantle a free and open service”, putting the digital platform’s business in Australia “at enormous risk.”

In response to an earlier draft code, devised by the ACCC, Facebook threatened to block Australian news content on its site if the laws proceeded, but the company is yet to say whether the threat remains afoot following the introduction of the revised code into Parliament.

The outgoing Trump Administration also declared its opposition to the bill in a submission lodged by US assistant trade representatives Daniel Bahar and Karl Ehlers.

The representatives said the revised draft bill did not “substantially address key US concerns”, first revealed The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in September, that the code could lead to “long-lasting negative consequences for US and Australian firms, as well as Australian consumers”.

The submission called the code “highly prescriptive” and “burdensome”, and claimed it was “designed to exclusively target (as an initial matter) two US companies” without “having first established a violation of existing Australian law or a market failure.”

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