Killing News to Save the Internet?

In the dominating narrative on internet regulation, any policy intervention is a threat to the openness of the internet which of course is the principle that trumps all. Exceptions are permissible for child pornography and harmful code, barring those every justified motive would jeopardise the freedom that made the internet great. Or something. Any initiative protecting creators of content or – God forbid – copyright, is especially toxic and must be condemned in the strongest possible language.

Only against this backdrop can the push back on the proposed “publisher’s right” be understood. Some call it “link tax”, except it’s not a tax on links. Some call it “ancillary copyright” which makes it sound like they’re in the know, but it really only means neighboring right: the kind of copyright that for example covers music recordings (the copyright for the song belongs to the composer, but if a label licenses the right to record the song, the rights to those recordings belong to the label – pretty straightforward, no? This is what internet freedom folks talk about when they say things like “today’s copyright only benefits the intermediaries”.).

Now, as most have noted, the established news media is under pressure. Not only do internet companies take the ad revenue that used to pay for journalism (I was about to say quality journalism but in all honesty it wasn’t always quality journalism), they also take the content. That’s right: when Google shows “snippets” of news stories in its search results or Google News, it takes content from those news outlets. Some or most users are happy with the snippet and don’t click on the link, which would have brought them to the news outlet’s own website, giving it an opportunity to get some revenue from ads or subscriptions or whatever. Of course no one in their right mind would accept this, it’s totally unfair plus the fourth estate is important to democracy and things like that. But no news organization is powerful enough to take on Google on its own. Enter government. Spain and Germany took sides with the news media and demanded Google share revenue when it uses snippets. The response? Google stopped showing those search results altogether, effectively cutting off traffic to the news organizations. This boycott worked, the news media said something like “sorry, we did not mean to offend you big information oligarch, please put us back online, we won’t ask you for money again”.

So if it didn’t work the first time, why is the Commission trying it again? Because Europe is bigger than the member states, at least that’s what the architect of this policy – ex-Commissioner Günther Öttinger – told us before he left. The logic is: if Spain or Germany couldn’t bring Google to its knees, perhaps the whole of EU can. If it works or not remains to be seen. Google will likely pull the same trick again, but will the European media consumers accept it? Perhaps the value of Google’s service will deteriorate and users will go elsewhere. Or Google can simply accept the situation and start sharing revenue with those who paid for the content in the first place (raise your hand if you think that is likely!).

There is no shortage of pundits who say this “link tax” will kill the internet and won’t bring any revenue to the news media anyway. Also, it will kill startups, supposedly. But that argument misses an important point: you can still use snippets, except you have to pay. Just like so many other things in life, content comes with a price tag. If your startup relies on free content, too bad. But hey, you can always pivot! You didn’t expect free office space, electricity, laptops or server space for your startup, you budgeted for all that stuff (or maybe you got all that from some incubator against a stake in your company). You didn’t expect staff to work for free, instead you gave them shares or stock options. Content is no different. The good news is that a smart news business will give startups a better deal than the incumbent search behemoth.

The publisher’s right is not perfect. But if not this, how else to pay for news? How else to compel internet platforms to share some revenue with those who paid for the content they monetise. How about that for a new narrative?