Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
While the US obsessed on Wednesday over what technically constitutes impeachment for a sitting American president, some European news publishers may have been focused on something quite different: namely, a decision by Google to play hardball with French media companies when it comes to linking to their content in its search results. As of Wednesday, unless a French publisher specifically says that it wants Google to do so, the search giant will no longer include short excerpts from news stories in its results. Instead, there will just be a headline. It’s not exactly clear how this will look in practice—in an earlier mockup of results with text from news publishers excluded, there was just a big white space where the excerpt and image were supposed to go.
Why is Google doing this? Because the French government recently passed a law that requires the search company to pay publishers if it uses even short excerpts of their content on its search pages. The French law is a local variation of a recently adopted European Union copyright directive known as Article 11, which says that publishers are entitled to compensation for the use of even small chunks of text, a payment some refer to as a “link tax.” This in turn was inspired by similar attempts in other EU countries to get Google and others to pay for excerpts. Germany tried with its Leistungsschutzrecht für Presseverleger law in 2013, and Spain tried with a similar law in 2014. In Germany, a number of publishers had their results removed from Google News when it refused to pay them, but later relented when their traffic collapsed by as much as 40 percent. In Spain, Google eventually removed Spain completely from the Google News index.
Google maintains that its news excerpts send publishers a huge amount of traffic—as the company’s head of news, Richard Gingras, pointed out in a blog post on Wednesday—and that this in turn generates revenue via advertising. Publishers, however, note that ad revenue is falling, in part because Google and Facebook control the lion’s share of the market—which is why Google also likes to highlight the Google News Initiative, through which the company funds research and development (and even the creation of entirely new local news outlets, as it is doing through partnerships in both the UK and US). The News Initiative got its start in 2006, when Belgium was the first country to sue Google for using content from local publishers without their consent. The two sides eventually settled, and Google agreed to fund research and development for the industry, and then offered similar deals to France and other countries.Continue reading “Google plays hardball with European news publishers”