German publishers accuse Google of “blackmail” as search firm axes News snippets

Google will stop using snippets of text and thumbnails of images from certain major German publications in its Google News portal, the company announced on Wednesday. However, this move may still fail to settle the long-running dispute between the U.S. web giant and Germany’s most powerful print media outlets.

For many years big players like Axel Springer — publisher of the world’s bestselling non-Asian newspaper, Bild – have tried to get money out of the Google News system. First they wanted a paid content partnership where users would pay to follow a link to a story on, say, Bild. Then they turned it into a political fight, successfully pushing for a 2013 law called the Leistungsschutzrecht für Presseverleger (LSR) that supposedly forces Google to pay royalties for using copyrighted text snippets in Google News.

Snippets snipped

As [company]Google[/company] has not paid up as planned, the publishers, which are members of a collection agency called VG Media, have sued it. Yesterday Google said it would simply stop using the snippets, leaving only headlines as Google News links for websites such as bild.de and hoerzu.de. Google Germany managing director Philipp Justus noted that other German aggregation portals such as web.de and T-Online have already stopped linking to VG Media members altogether.

“We regret this legal approach very much because every publisher could always decide whether and how its contents are displayed in our services themselves,” Justus wrote in a blog post.

So that settles the case then, right? Not quite. According to VG Media, the removal of its members’ snippets and thumbnails amounts to “blackmail.” In a statement, the organization claimed Google was enforcing its market power – Google has over 90 percent of the German search market – to gut the LSR and punish publishers that are trying to assert their intellectual property rights.

A VG Media spokesman told me on Thursday that the publishers do not fundamentally object to Google’s decision to stop showing snippets and thumbnails, but they do object to the fact that it’s only doing this for VG Media members.

Antitrust issue?

“Google is discriminating in that they do not show snippets and thumbnails for publishers that made a claim, but they still show snippets and thumbnails from other publishers,” he said. “They’re trying to [apply] economic pressure.”

VG Media had already complained to the German Federal Cartel Office – the country’s antitrust authority – about Google’s behavior back in May. That was after the web firm told the publishers that if they don’t want their results showing up in Google News, it can just stop showing those results.

The spokesman said VG Media was still in talks with the regulator about the case, and would add a complaint about this latest move. But how does this move harm consumers? I asked him. “Because they won’t have quality content in the future” if Google doesn’t pay for the snippets it uses, he claimed.

But surely Google actually helps publishers by sending traffic their way — do the publishers really believe that anyone sees a sentence-or-two-long snippet in Google News and then goes “Eh, that’s enough, I don’t need to click through”?

“We think this is happening but this is not something I really want to comment on right now,” the spokesman said. “This is an argument we hear a lot, but this is a two-sided situation. You may say publishers profit from a service such as Google, but Google profits because there is content from users such as publishers.”