There’s a basic feeling among traditional news publishers throughout Europe, and among some in the U.S., that Google has benefited enormously from their content but failed to offer anything in return. Furthermore, many publishers see Google as directly responsible for the decline of their traditional advertising and circulation revenues.
The counter-argument that Google sends traffic to publishers is unpersuasive to local authorities and most of the publishers themselves.
Across Europe various legislative and litigious efforts, in France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and now Spain have sought to compensate publishers for the perceived unfairness by taxing Google, and others seen as benefiting from news content without paying for it.
Initiatives are often promoted under the justification of protecting copyright or intellectual property rights. But in many respects Google is simply seen as a deep pocket. European legislators regard their efforts as restoring fairness to the market. But there’s an anti-American element as well.
The Spanish are the latest to promote a “Google Tax” that would benefit news publishers. One house of the country’s Congress has already passed legislation, with the other poised to do so.
The law sets up a paternalistic system where news publishers cannot be involuntarily removed from Google News results. By the same token Google must pay publishers for any snippets or links to their sites. Normally publishers unhappy with Google could opt-out. That appears to be precluded under the pending Spanish law.
The structure of the law is apparently designed to avoid what happened in Germany where a similar copyright license law was pushed by news publishers, requiring Google to pay for other than minimal use of their content. There were loopholes in that “ancillary copyright” law; publishers were opted-out of News by Google and asked to opt-in and formally waive compensation. In response German publishers are now seeking arbitration with Google to gain a percentage of its revenue in the country.
Google Spanish digital entrepreneur Julio Alonso explains the Spanish proposal:
Once you read the actual proposal, it becomes quite clear that Spanish newspaper editors have learned from the German experience. There the government passed a similar law that forced Google to pay newspaper editors if they were included in Google News. When approved, Google excluded all newspaper editors from Google News and asked anyone wanting to be listed to reapply explicitly declaring that they renounced to be compensated. All newspaper did reapply not wanting to miss out on the traffic it generates. Google won.
The Spanish law proposal declares that editors cannot refuse the use of “non-significant fragments of their articles” by third parties. However, it creates a levy on such use to compensate editors and declares it an inalienable right (derecho irrenunciable).
The introduction of the inalienable right was done to avoid what happened in Germany. If you are a digital editor that publishes with a copyleft license, like myself, and you minimally understand how the internet actually works, you cannot decide to not charge Google News. It is compulsory. More than a right it is an obligation. Therefore, Google cannot exclude sites requiring payment from Google News. It would still need to pay for those it includes, even if they do not want to be compensated.
The Spanish law declares an “inalienable right” to compensation for any use of content by Google and presumably other news aggregators, which could include Facebook and a range of internet companies. Google is the focus of the legislation however.
Once again, the pending Spanish law says that publisher content must be included in Google News and publishers must be compensated. Publishers cannot decline to be compensated.
I can understand newspaper publishers’ frustrations and the Spanish government’s alarm at the decline of an important industry, as well as its desire to help its local publishers. However a compulsory Google Tax is a bad idea in every conceivable way.
Postscript: Google has the option to sidestep the law (if it passes) by shutting down Google News in Spain. It’s not entirely clear from what I’ve seen whether the law would extend to general search results, however.
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