Spanish Newspapers Want Government To Force Google To Keep News Open In Spain

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A new effort by the Spanish Newspaper Publishers Association (AEDE) to prevent Google from shutting down its News site in Spain is an amazing example of industry chutzpah or hubris. The action shows so much chutzpah in fact that it enters the realm of unintentional political satire.

First the background if you don’t already know it.

Using Germany’s “Ancillary Copyright” Law as a model, AEDE succeeded in convincing Spanish lawmakers to pass an even stricter “anti-piracy” law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2015. The law mandates compensation for the appearance of newspaper publishers’ content on third party search and content aggregation sites. However it’s directed at Google News in particular.

Rather than seeking to protect copyright, the measure is clearly a tax intended to generate additional revenue from Google and, on some level, to punish the company. The law doesn’t allow individual publishers to waive the licensing fees.

While the law doesn’t have the unanimous support of all Spanish publishers, even those that disagree cannot contractually or voluntarily sidestep it. Accordingly Google made the decision to shutter News in Spain.

Now the AEDE is asking the Spanish government and EU competition officials to force Google to keep News open in Spain, ostensibly because its closure “will undoubtedly have a negative impact on citizens and Spanish businesses.” 

Google will still index news publisher content in its main search results, the company said last week. Accordingly the AEDE argument is specious at best. The trade group is cynically using the public interest to try and prevent Google from thwarting its link tax.

The Spanish case is significant because if it succeeds it will be a model for the rest of Europe. If the government were to force Google to keep News open and pay the tax, it might provide some short-term revenue. Yet it doesn’t address the core problems that the newspaper industry must fix to be sustainable.

The less-draconian German copyright law totally backfired on publishers who had also hoped to force Google to pay them for content. When their rich snippets were dropped many of them lost significant traffic, causing them to blink in their war with Google.

The anti-Google sentiment among lawmakers in Europe is such that there’s perhaps a 50-50 chance that government officials may seek intervene and block the closure of Google News — though that would be absurd. The AEDE argument assumes Google is effectively a “public utility.” Were 18th Century French philosopher and writer Voltaire alive today he would find rich subject matter in this episode for political satire.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the newspapers’ problems. But there are things that could and should be done in terms of government-sponsored innovation, experimentation, industry initiatives and mobile development. Indeed, mobile is where these organizations should probably be putting their emphasis.

Mobile news apps are an opportunity to reestablish a direct connection with readers unmediated by third parties such as Google. A more productive use of AEDE resources would be to help support development of mobile sites and apps for its members. Instead of attacking Google News create an industry-owned a news aggregation app (like SmartNews) to drive traffic to members.

Governments across Europe are justifiably alarmed by the declining fortunes of their respective newspaper industries. However punitive or parasitic taxation measures targeting Google, masquerading as copyright protections, are not the answer.

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