Microsoft has made an ambitious play to replace Google in Australia, promising its search engine Bing will be improved and offering businesses a lucrative incentive to switch their advertising.
Microsoft has also given a big tick of approval to the federal government’s News Media Bargaining Code, breaking with other big tech giants by saying Bing would be happy to comply with the controversial framework.
“We believe that the current legislative proposal represents a fundamental step towards a more level playing field and a fairer digital ecosystem for consumers, business, and society,” Microsoft president Brad Smith said on Wednesday.
It came after he and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher last week. Bing had previously refused to comment on the Google threat.
The federal government’s news media code, formulated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, would force digital giants Facebook and Google to make significant concessions to media outlets.
Under the draft, to be debated in parliament in coming weeks, both would have to better compensate news publications for displaying their content, as well as give outlets more information about their search and newsfeed algorithms.
That information is a closely held secret for both companies, and they have already made powerful threats, with Facebook pledging to block Australian news content and Google promising to simply block Australians from using its search engine if the code comes into force.
Google has nearly 95 per cent market share in Australia’s search engine ecosystem. Microsoft’s Bing, with less than 4 per cent of the market, has been hailed (perhaps jokingly, by some) as a possible fallback option if the threat to stop making Google search available in Australia comes to fruition.
But Bing has expressly made the offer to step into the breach, and fill any gap left by a possible Google departure. Mr Smith said Microsoft was “committed to Australia and the news publishers that are vital to the country’s democracy”.
“Microsoft fully supports the News Media Bargaining Code. The code reasonably attempts to address the bargaining power imbalance between digital platforms and Australian news businesses,” Mr Smith said.
“While Microsoft is not subject to the legislation currently pending, we’d be willing to live by these rules if the government designates us.”
Appearing to acknowledge Bing’s small slice of Australia’s search engine pie, he added that Microsoft would “invest further to ensure Bing is comparable to our competitors”. He said “Bing gets better” after people use it more.
“We believe that the current legislative proposal represents a fundamental step towards a more level playing field and a fairer digital ecosystem for consumers, business, and society,” Mr Smith said.
He didn’t mention Google, but said that “while other tech companies may sometimes threaten to leave Australia, Microsoft will never make such a threat”.
Mr Smith also promised small businesses that they could switch their advertising services to Bing for free, if they wished.
News code to pass with Labor support
The Labor Party said on Tuesday it had committed to supporting the media laws when they came up for a vote in parliament. The Greens will push for amendments to ensure that revenue that news outlets generate from the code is reinvested in public interest journalism.
Greens communications spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, wants the federal government to invent a publicly-funded search engine, to avoid commercial digital behemoths dominating the playing field.
“The government needs a plan for how Australians will continue to be able to access essential information online if Google Search were to be taken offline. We need an independent search engine that is run in the public interest not for the profit of a corporate giant,” she said.
“Google’s threat to leave Australia shows we cannot be reliant on corporations to provide essential services such as access to information online.”
Senator Hanson-Young was not enthused about the Microsoft development, saying the company must be included in the news code.
“We should not seek out another foreign giant to fill the gap of Google, whether it’s Microsoft or anyone else, as they will still profit off the data of Australians and be beholden to shareholder interests,” she said.
Peter Lewis, director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, praised Microsoft’s commitment to Australia.
“This is a significant development and should send a message to both Google and Facebook that their network dominance in Australia is only as strong as their respect for Australians,” Mr Lewis said.
“This shows that the media code is workable, it will not break the internet, and that it will create opportunities for technology companies prepared to respect Australia’s democratic processes.”
The federal government appears more amenable to Microsoft’s Mr Smith than fellow tech CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder who personally – yet unsuccessfully – lobbied Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in recent days to change the legislation.
“Mark Zuckerberg didn’t convince me to back down,” Mr Frydenberg told the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
“I don’t dismiss the threats but I’m not intimidated by them either … we have been prepared to take on the digital giants.”