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Five reasons why the link tax is still a bad idea

We’ve been campaigning for months against the benign-sounding “ancillary copyright”, or what we like to call the ‘link tax’. The tl;dr of how the law works as it’s currently functioning in Spain and Germany right now is that aggregation services have to pay a fee every time they use a few descriptive words and a link pointing to content that’s available elsewhere online. The law is being lobbied for by large media publishers, looking to shore up their struggling business model with some quick cash from companies who are actually innovating. 

There’s lots of evidence out there about the harm this brings to Internet users, innovators, media pluralism, small and indie publishers, and the underlying structure of the Web. We’ve described this before as something like taxing roads or maps. Another way to describe it is “a supremely bad idea.”

Despite being a terrible, Internet-breaking idea, legislators in Europe have been considering expanding this law to cover the entire European Union, and by logical extension, huge chunks of the global Internet.

Just yesterday EDiMA – a European trade association representing online platforms – published a knockout brief detailing all the reasons why this legislation is not only misguided, but what they call “an unworkable and invalid concept.”

Here are the top 5:

1. These rules affect way more than just Google.

Some have tried to make the case that this law is justified because it’s only really taking money out of the pocket of the tech giant. Presumably the argument goes “they can afford it, so fair play.” Not only is this argument insubstantial, but the actual evidence shows us that ancillary copyright laws, as implemented, have impacted a huge range of services and online platforms. Just check out this chart:

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Via: EDiMA - the impact of ancillary rights in news products

2. It’s actually hurting startups, smaller publishers, and innovative business. 

If decision-makers considering this legislation think it’s going to help new, locally-grown online services to flourish, they’ve been duped. The big players like Google News might technically be able to pay (although they chose instead to close down in Spain after the law was implemented) but your favourite indie aggregator certainly can’t.

Contrary to one of the key aims of the Digital Single Market strategy – to give European innovators all the conditions they need to create the next generation of online services in a world dominated by U.S. tech companies – what will actually be accomplished by implementing ancillary copyright across the EU is a perpetuation of the status quo. As EDiMA puts it:

Ancillary rights would also create a competitive advantage for already established, successful online services, making it harder for new European companies to compete and develop new services.

3. You won’t find the content you’re looking for.

It’s just common sense that aggregators and content producers benefit mutually from each other. When you go to a search engine to look something up, you’re trying to find your way to content. In most cases, you can’t read the content on the search site itself, but it points you to where you want to go, like a signpost. If the search site has to pay to put up signposts, not only will they stop pointing to content, but the content providers will also suffer. Just look at these stats:

Ancillary rights act as a barrier to competition and pluralism, by making it harder for publishers to reach their readers online. Smaller publishers, regional publishers or new online news publishers are disproportionally affected, suffering a competitive disadvantage. In Spain, the decline in traffic following the adoption of the law saw smaller publishers losing twice as much traffic as large publishers (AEEPP/NERA, 2015).

In short: ancillary copyright advocates fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between linking services and content providers.

4. Services using Creative Commons and open access licenses can’t escape the dragnet. 

Essentially, things like online libraries and spaces predicated on using material already in the public domain or under flexible licensing “would see a fee collected for the circulation of their information (Xalabader, 2014). This hampers innovation and knowledge sharing in Europe.”

In the Spanish iteration of the ancillary copyright law, the fee has been made inalienable, meaning that even if a content provider didn’t want to collect a fee for certain uses (take a library, for example), they wouldn’t be permitted to waive it.

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5. It puts our freedom of information at risk. 

Last, but certainly not least, this law takes aim at our freedom to access information. Simply put, if you take away the ability of services to describe in a few short words what they’re linking out to, you’re probably not going to click on the link. Imagine if every link you saw when searching for something online showed up like this:

https://www.ceps.eu/sites/default/files/CEPS%20-%20Should%20we%20tax%20the%20Internet,%20T.Kreutzer.pdf

Would you click on it? Wouldn’t it just be much easier to see this:

Should we tax the Internet?

Both paths bring you to the same content online, but one previews what you’re about to see, which is why you’d be more likely to click it. Or, as EDiMA puts it:

Links, without context, are practically useless to consumers and Internet or app users. Without small extracts of text, links in apps and on the Internet would be reduced to “blue URLs”.

In summation:
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