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EU blinks as Google portrays “a doomsday scenario” for news publishers

Last week Google showed some “test” screenshots (first shared with Search Engine Land) showing what would happen if the proposed EU Copyright Directive came into effect.

No copy, no images, scant text, and some links without context.
A ghost town with a Google logo on top.

Given that Google sends more than 50% of referral traffic to publishers, this demonstration was scary indeed.

Google said that it was experimenting with a small percentage of users in Europe to understand the impact of the proposed EU Copyright Directive on users and publisher partners; the sample screenshots simply show how searching for news might look under the Copyright Directive.

In a joint statement, the European Media Management Association, European Newspaper Publishers’ Association, European Publishers Council and News Media Europe claimed that Google had “intensified its scaremongering” about the possible impact of a new neighboring right for press publishers.

“[Google] wants to portray a doomsday scenario that would never happen,” said Angela Mills Wade, Executive Director of the European Publishers’ Council. “It’s an interpretation that is distorted in order to provide a picture which makes it look worse than it is.”

To recap, these are the most contentious clauses in the proposed law:

  • Article 11 would require Google, Microsoft and other news aggregators to pay publishers for displaying news snippets. (Note: Earlier when snippet taxes were introduced in Spain and Germany, publishers reported plunging traffic on their sites.)
  • Article 13 would require online platforms like Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others to monitor and to install filters to prevent users from uploading copyrighted materials, which critics say could lead to censorship.

Critics of the proposed law have been saying for a while that it would fundamentally break the internet. But given that a picture is worth a thousand words, Google’s visual demonstration of what a dystopian future might look like had its intended effect.

Dissent among the ranks

Member states of the EU were supposed to meet in Romania to approve the latest draft version of the Directive. But instead, eleven countries—Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Slovenia, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Croatia, Luxembourg and Portugal—voted against it.

Many cited concerns over Article 13, as well as the similarly contentious clause, Article 11 (dubbed the ‘link tax’ provision). As a consequence of such a major bloc of countries dissenting, the Directive’s scheduled approval meeting yesterday (January 21) was cancelled.

The Council should take the next step, delete Article 13 and say goodbye to upload filters once and for all.

Julia Reda, European Parliament Member

Reda suggested that the result showed “public attention to the copyright reform is having an effect” on the attitudes of politicians.

While this latest setback will not kill the proposed law outright, it certainly makes it a lot harder for it to pass in its current form anytime soon. There is little time to hammer out a revised agreement due to European Parliament elections in May.

Last month, Google’s VP of News, Richard Gingras, explained the company’s position, saying “Unlike people in other parts of the world, European citizens may no longer find the most relevant news across the web, but rather the news that online services have been able to commercially license. We believe the information we show should be based on quality, not on payment. And we believe it’s not in the interest of European citizens to change that.”

Effectively, companies like Google will be put in the position of picking winners and losers. Online services, some of which generate no revenue (for instance, Google News) would have to make choices about which publishers they’d do deals with. Presently, more than 80,000 news publishers around the world can show up in Google News, but Article 11 would sharply reduce that number.

Richard Gingras, Google’s VP of News

“Quality journalism is critical for a functioning democracy. No one disputes that and both Google and Facebook have stepped up their support of news publishers and journalism,” writes Greg Sterling, Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land (one of the first publishers Google shared the “test” screenshots with).

“The challenge is how to deliver high-quality content after the disruption of traditional media business models. Government intervention in the form of compulsory copyright licensing fees is probably not the answer.”