Blog Post

Wake up, Europe — Google’s not the one hurting your news business

Hurray for Google: the US company has beat back Germany’s latest effort to tax its search results. The victory, though, is small consolation at a time when other European countries are trying similar tricks to force Google to prop up their struggling publishing industries.

In case you missed it, the latest development took place on Friday when Google published a blog post saying German publishers will have to “opt in” to appear in its free news aggregation service, Google News. Until now, the German version of the service was like the rest of Google News, which displays headlines and short snippets of news stories, and allows users to click through and read them.

The opt-in decision is unusual, and appears to be Google’s response to a new German law that lets publishers, in a weird quirk of copyright law, charge search engines to display snippets of their content. The opt-in, in other words, is a way around that law — publishers that opt in are basically giving Google a license to show the articles for free. And as Marketing Land notes, “the publishers who celebrated the new law are likely to be very frustrated by Google’s move.”

It’s hard, however, to feel much sympathy for the publishers or even understand why they believe Google should pay them in the first place. As a journalist, I can attest that it’s a good thing when Google News surfaces one of my stories — it results in a rush of new visitors and publicity for me and my publication. The notion that Google is somehow to blame for stealing or replacing news content is absurd; it’s true that fewer people are going to a site’s homepage for news, but this is not Google’s fault — it’s just a reflection of the way we consume content on the internet. Will the publishers next demand Facebook(s fb), Twitter and LinkedIn(s lnkd) prevent people from sharing their precious headlines?

If publishers want to blame someone for the decline of traditional news companies, they can of course blame the internet. But that’s like a group of buggy makers demanding the government tax Henry Ford to make up for their declining carriage business.

And yet European countries keep coming back with half-baked copyright arguments to force Google into paying up. Belgium invented this game and, after Google finally capitulated, France came calling too — to the tune of  €50 million. My colleague Mathew Ingram has argued persuasively that this will only persuade other countries to get in the hand-out line.

The real shame here, however, is not the unfair copyright tax on Google (the search giant, after all, is still plenty rich). The more serious problem is instead the reactionary mentality of European publishers. As a Belgian journalist explained to me this weekend, many publishers are reluctant to put content online because they fear “Google will take it,” and are working on elaborate paywalls they hope can put an entire country’s news content behind a gate.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before in North America and we know how it can end — layoffs, bankruptcy or irrelevance. If German and other European publishers want to avoid this fate, it’s time to stop blaming Google for their troubles and get on with the hard work of building digital news companies. 

17 Responses to “Wake up, Europe — Google’s not the one hurting your news business”

  1. Ignoring the bizarre ‘Google is making lots of money, therefore they must be punished’ line, what Google does with its web crawlers is *index* content. They don’t *steal* content, any more than the US Library of Congress or the Bodleian Library, or anyt one of a thousand other libraries *steal* it by creating an entry in their catalogues. Google’s indexing, because it is automated, is simultaneously far richer and far poorer than that provided by a professional indexer, but the billions of users of Google’s indexes are quite willing to forgive an occasional lack of precision in favour of an enormous reach. Those who complain that Google is taking a free ride don;t understand either of Google’s technical or vusiness models. Traditional media content is a tiny fraction of Google’s indexes. It’s no more expensive for them *not* to index it than it is to include it. The technical means to prevent Google indexing content has been available for years [the robots.txt file] but the old media organisations [wisely I would suggest] have not taken that option., so now Google has flipped things over to give them the option to be indexed, or not.

  2. Sofamonkey

    if the news content providers go bust who will feed Google News? Google are a bunch of freetards repurposing content and failing to pay the organisation who created it. Plus they pay bugger all tax in the countries that they infest (US excepted).

  3. Clemont L.

    If you consider a good thing that Google “surfaces” one of your “stories” is just because those “stories” are pieces of lame shit that would otherwise sink for the better of human kind quicker than it takes you to burp them out.

    Of course when you make a living out of trying to fool readers into thinking that your irrelevant and worthless opinions are solid, fact-checked and interesting news like the real and worthy ones, you celebrate Google stealing somebody’s work to make a profit out of it, but how stupid you have to be to call a whole continent reactionary for wanting to get paid for their work?

    An awaken European.

    • Tetracycloide

      So basically you have no real point and you have to resort to name calling, insults, and conflation to try to discredit the writter. Pretty pathetic.

    • Chuck2a

      “… Google stealing somebody’s work …”

      There is NO reasonable theory that support your argument. How can LINKING to somebody’s FREELY-AVAILABLE web content be considered stealing? They put a convenience link for their customer to send them to you. By any reasonable standard, they may even be entitled for a finder’s fee for sending you customers.

      The problem is people arguing without having a clue of what they are arguing about.

      • Claudio

        In my biased european opinion each and every author should participate in revenues being generated through his content. Arguably Google does exactly that so why not charge them?
        In Germany for example authors get a compensation for their publications being copied ans borrowed in State libaries. Seems more like consistent policy to me than a twist of copy right law as google does act in a comparable way to these libaries…

  4. Good point, but false perspective. We’re in the age of big data, right? Google is making money out of crunching enormous ammount of data and putting their ads in the results. The publishers provide a lot of data, the data that the users want to search through, the data Google need to crunch. Google is making money out of data the publishers produce. Google is paying for maps (data) the geo companies provide. Why is Google not paying for the data, the publishers bring to their system?

    Best. Tfj

    • “Google is making money…”

      And this seems to be the sticking point behind the complaints. Google is doing too well, and the publishers aren’t doing well enough.
      They can’t figure out how to make money from the Internet, so they want to tax a company that does.

    • Tetracycloide

      Because Google isn’t driving traffic to ‘geo companies’ but is driving traffic to publishers. If the publishers think that’s a bum deal then they can easily opt-out. Sounds like Google is going to make that even easier than before by making opt-out the default. Of course there’s also the fact that copyright is supposed to work that way. You’re supposed to be able to quote a source for free and without having to ask for permission.

    • Brian

      Google does not pay for Geo data any more. It was going to be too expensive. Their response, build their own Geo data from scratch. Now they own the data. There isn’t anyone to haggle licensing or royalties with and they get to keep improving the data in the ways that they feel it needs to be improved.

    • Isabelle Otto

      The problem here is absolutely not what you are mentioning, or what the depressed and lost European press is mentioning, but the low price of web adverts. And that stupidly low price was brought about by not other than … Google, who makes a substantial chunk of its business in Europe. Google, who pays 30% tax in the US and less than 3% outside of the US. I suggest you look into that, and you will find the origin of European frustration.

      • Thanks for your comment, Isabelle.. I agree that depreciated digital ad prices are hurting publishers in Europe and elsewhere.. I wish they were higher too but I fail to see how Google is responsible for this — like publishers, the company benefits when ad prices are higher.

        And as Theli below notes, why does Google’s success mean they have to prop up the publishers? Many Europeans dislike Google for its cavalier attitude to privacy, its tax practices (see above) and so on — but that is still no justification for the bizarre copyright theories promulgated by Germany, Belgium and others

      • Tetracycloide

        European businesses, like the European press, are frustrated that… corporate taxes in the EU aren’t as repressive as those in the US? You think the press in the EU would be happier if they paid 10 times more in taxes?

        • IsabelleOtto

          Well, they ARE as repressive in the EU as in the US in MOST countries, for companies based in a country… and selling products there. Which Google is saying they are not (for example selling in France from Ireland enables them to declare the profit in Ireland. Stupid I know). One of the questions Europe has to deal with urgently is the lowering of tax competition within its borders, not listening to beautiful sirens like Google lobbying (as they should) for this not to happen… I just prefer to lobby the other way around.