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24th Jul 2017

Focus

EU targets Google in copyright reform

  • The US tech giant resents being blamed for the demise of the newspaper business (Photo: Michael McGimpsey)

Google was in the firing line when the European Commission on Wednesday (14 September) laid out plans for how to fix the EU’s outmoded copyright rules.

As part of the package, the EU executive suggested levelling the playing field between media on the one hand, and search engines and news aggregators on the other, by giving the first group special publishers’ rights.

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  • Similar schemes backfired in Germany and Spain (Photo: Alessio Milan)

This means that platforms could have to pay for hosting stories, or even snippets - headlines, accompanying pictures, quotes and introductory sentences - in future.

Publishers’ groups EMMA, ENPA, EPC and NME welcomed the news as ”a necessary and historically important step in guaranteeing media pluralism as an essential basis for freedom of opinion and democracy in the digital world”.

They said all other players in the creative industries enjoyed similar rights already.

The current framework dates back to just 2001, but many say it was fit for the past century when reporting the news was still profitable.

The advent of Internet went hand in hand with falling ad revenues.

The groups said publishers contributed to the success of platforms by providing high quality content, but that platforms did not share their profits fairly.

'Value gap'

Artists have long had similar concerns.

They say more people are listening to music than ever, but this is not reflected in performers’ income.

This is partly blamed on Google’s sister company YouTube.

The commission’s proposal would make it mandatory for video platforms to put programmes in place that scan users' content for protected material.

Such material is today removed only after individual complaints, and, in many cases, is reposted under a different username almost immediately afterward.

The EU executive also wants to increase transparency in the sector by forcing platforms to provide better figures on their profits vis-a-vis use of copyrighted material, so that it becomes clear how much money they are making on artists and reporters’ content.

The European Grouping of Societies of Authors and Composers (Gesac) called the proposal ”Europe’s first step to end tech giant free riding”.

But not everyone agrees that press and music will be better off after a crackdown on Google.

The US tech giant, whose motto is “don’t be evil”, does not like to be blamed for the demise of the newspaper business.

It also says it does not actually make much money on news services. Today’s headlines - capsized refugee boats, economic woes - do not attract many accompanying adverts, it says.

The US company said in a blog post the EU executive had not “struck the right balance” between the rights of creators and consumers.

"This would effectively turn the internet into a place where everything uploaded to the web must be cleared by lawyers before it can find an audience," Google’s vice president Caroline Atkinson wrote.

She warned the move could prevent competition from small-scale actors.

The firm noted that YouTube has spent €53 million to create the software that recognises and removes copyright content.

Google also voiced criticism over the way the commission wanted to support news publishers.

The proposal looks a lot like previous ones that failed in Germany and Spain.

German lawmakers introduced an ancillary copyright for publishers in 2013, under which they could ask search engines and aggregators a licence fee for links to their articles if such links were accompanied by short snippets of the publishers’ content.

Google said it would continue to display results from these sites, but without any text and image snippets, so as to not violate the new law.

Risk of fiasco

Some websites saw traffic drop by up to 80 percent as a consequence. Eventually 90 percent of the news websites waived their rights to the US company.

Spain, on the other hand, made it mandatory to pay for snippets, which had Google close down its news service in the country.

According to Google’s own figures, that effort cost publishers a loss of 6 percent of traffic in average - but 14 percent for smaller publishers, which depended more heavily on the search engine for audience.

”Paying to display snippets is not a viable option for anyone”, Google’s Caroline Atkinson wrote.

The EU consumers lobby, Beuc, was also critical of plans to oblige online platforms to install software to detect and take down videos containing parts of copyrighted works. 

“Many people remix, produce and share videos and music on a daily basis. Because of unclear copyright rules they face the risk that their creations are taken down by the likes of YouTube and Facebook,” Beuc director general Monique Goyens wrote in an emailed statement. 

She said the proposal to make scanning for copyrighted content mandatory would lead to removal of allegedly unauthorised content. 

”This measure is legitimising the arbitrary removal of consumers’ own creative works. This is not how the web should work for online users,” Doyens said. 

The European Parliament’s rapporteur on copyright, Julia Reda, likewise poured criticism on the commission. She called the plans a ”disaster for the Internet”.

Backfire risk

”The commission clearly targeted Google,” said the German Pirate, who sits with the Green group, ”but it could end up hurting its competitors instead.”

”Publishers seem to have convinced [EU digital economy] commissioner Oettinger that Google makes a lot of money, and that they should have a part of that money,” Reda told this website.

The news industry’s troubles would not be solved with copyright law, she said.

Even the commission’s own impact assessment revealed that news publishers expected at best a 10 percent boost to their revenues.

Reda said that she feared people would simply stop linking to those stories protected by the new right.

”That would hurt European news business and media diversity,” the Pirate said.

She said German media eventually waived their rights for Google, “but they kept it for competitors”.

Despite the war of words, the proposal does not hammer out details of a deal to be concluded between Google and news publishers.

It creates a right for the publisher, who does not have to use it.

The ball now passes to the European Parliament and the Council, which will amend and vote on the proposals before they become law.

Opinion

Let's fix EU copyright law

Europe’s messy copyright legal framework doesn’t belong in the 21st century. A citizens' movement can help reform it.

Copyright file moves to pro-digital commissioner

Following a reshuffle, Estonian commissioner Ansip temporarily takes over the file from German Guenther Oettinger, who is seen as more friendly towards copyright holders.

EU fines Google €2.4 bn over online shopping

Brussels says Google has abused a near-monopoly position in online searches to favour its shopping service, but the US company said Brussels cannot prove the charges.

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