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, Twitter and LinkedIn 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.