By Marta Peirano
May 11, 2017
Article from Marta Peirano
The Link Tax: An Editor’s story
Two years and a half ago, the Conservative government in Spain passed a copyright law that imposed fees for online content aggregators like Google News in order to protect the Spanish media.
It's been popularly known as the Google Tax, but we in the media call it Canon AEDE.
AEDE is Spanish Newspaper Publishers' Association that lobbied for these rules.
It is important to note this is a paper newspapers association, meaning it does not accept digital news websites, like mine, as members.
This law required all Spanish publishers to charge fees to any aggregation service that reposts passages from their articles. They were to do this through a ‘rights management’ organization called Cedro, a collecting agency.
Companies who failed to charge these fees would face a fine of about seven hundred and fifty thousand euros.
As a response, Google removed Spanish publishers from Google News, and closed Google News Spain. This happened in December 2014.
The law was passed but has never been enforced. And yet its impact of Spanish media has been profound. Visits to the AEDE news sites dropped 99%, from 1.7 million to 17,000. They lost thousands of euros in advertising. I work at a newspaper and I can tell when newspapers make less money, when writers and collaborators make less money.
AEDE reacted by lobbying the Spanish government to force Google to keep it running. It embarrasses me to say I think they tried.
Spain was not the only or the first country to have failed attempts to charge aggregators for indexing news. It was here in Belgium, 11 years ago, that Copiepresse had the Court of First Instance of Belgium, order Google to withdraw all the articles, photographs, and graphics of its Belgian publications from the Google News site, "under penalty of a daily fine of €2,000,000 per day of delay."
You may know how this story ends: Google chose to comply with the order. And also stopped for several months referencing the sites of these newspapers on its search engine, depriving them of a share of traffic.
Needless to say, the battle was settled.
Einstein said doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
The Axel Springer news group in Germany had the exact same experience, but it didn't stop them from lobbying the EU for a new go at it.
Not so long ago, EU's Digital commissioner Günther H. Oettinger explained the actual reason: they believe Google can subdue Spain, Belgium or Germany individually, but they can't afford to lose 28 markets at the same time. And so they want to subdue Europe into bullying Google for a cause they do not share. There is a word for this kind of behavior.
The important premises to remember are these: Newspapers can avoid indexing. Not being linked by Google is free.
Futhermore: the same media that lobbies for linking taxes invests a lot of money in Search engine optimization, to higher their ranks. These are two contradicting strategies that reveal how inappropriate their proposition is. If you want to charge for visibility, there is a solution ready at home: paywalls.
You can’t give away the content to gain audience and then ask the indexer to charge for you.
And, while it is true Google has too much power over the media industry and that is unfair and scary, truth is you can't claim compensation for something that benefits you, just because it seems to benefit others too. That is the definition of intelligence. As a society, we shouldn't punish that.
There are two aspects that define this moment in media:
One, that news is heavily mediated by social media, and two, that readers are heavily biased by their personal filter bubbles. We are already experiencing the consequences of such development through shocking turn of events like Brexit, Trump and the uprising of the far right in Europe. Any strategy that reduces citizen's access to a varied media diet will only deepen the political gap between neighbors. Not to mention the chance for censorship and opportunistic management of crucial information by internet platforms, powerful media players, and their political allies.
Marta Peirano is a writer an a journalist and long time advocate for individual privacy, government transparency, digital security and free culture. She currently works as Deputy Director at Spanish national daily eldiario.es.
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