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“It’s like blackmail”: Fury as Google says it will exclude French publishers from search results

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Publishers and publishing associations have responded with anger at the announcement by Google that it will exclude French publishers from search results to counter the implementation of the new European Copyright Directive.

The World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) represented by its President, Vice Presidents, and Chair of the Member Associations’ Committee, said it will “forcefully” support the position of the French publishers against Google’s decision to circumvent the copyright laws.

Earlier this week it became clear French publishers would be the first victims of the European Copyright Directive, also known as Article 11, when they were instructed by Google that the tech giant will not pay them to display their content in search results. Instead, results will be left blank.

France is the first country to transpose into national legislation the Copyright Directive approved by the European Union earlier this year and establishing a publishers’ right. The law is an attempt to force large platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay them a so-called ‘link tax’ when they use small snippets of publisher content, such as they way text would appear in search results or any other platform page. 

The law will come into force on 24 October. Google, however, declared on 23 September that the search engine will from that moment block virtually any results from European newspapers in France. It is now widely believed the tech giant will adopt the same hardline approach when other European countries follow French publishers in adopting similar legislation. 

Disregard for the freedom of the press

WAN-IFRA said in a strong worded statement Google’s stance is “not only disrespectful of the French Government and its elected Parliament, it is also against a law that will soon be applicable in the entire territory of the European Union”. 

WAN-IFRA’s President, Fernando de Yarza, and Head of Digital, Lisa MacLeod, said in a joint statement Google’s position ultimately impacts the whole European news publishing industry and it denotes a troublesome disregard for the freedom of the press. “Indeed, if the content of news publishers keeps being used on the internet without remuneration, the future of the independent press is at great risk. 

“The global membership of WAN-IFRA saluted the approval of the Directive as a collective success for news publishers, and strongly believes that a clear legal protection of content is essential to ensure the sustainability of journalism and the freedom of news media. We urge Google to abide by the rule of law, and to tangibly show its respect for a free press.”

“It’s like blackmail,” said Bertrand Gié, digital media director of French multimedia publisher Figaro Groupe. “You either have to agree to give them the digital rights for your content for free, otherwise you will disappear from the search.”

In a statement the French minister of culture, Frank Riester, said Google’s response is unacceptable and contrary to the spirit and the text of the new legislation. 

A position to bargain?

The European Publishers’ Council said Google’s tactics are endangering professional journalism. This is supported by a report who says it is estimated that publishers in France lose between €250 million and €320 million per year due to Google and Facebook’s power in the online advertising market. Publishers were hoping the new legislation would put them in a position to bargain with the tech giants to compensate them for some of these losses. 

These figures are one of the reasons Europe’s largest publishing houses have been calling on lawmakers in Brussels for years to pass legislation that will allow them to bargain with tech giants like Google and Facebook for payment if they use any length of content excepts, no matter how short, on their pages.

But in a blogpost this week, Richard Gingras, vice president for news at Google, writes “we will make changes in the way the news results will appear in our search engine. If you are in France, you will see that some results will appear differently. 

“At the moment, when we post the results of news related research, you see a title, the link of which links directly to the relevant news site. In some cases we also offer an overview of the article, for example a few lines of text or a small image called ‘vignette’. These titles and previews help you decide if the result matches your search and if you want to click on it.”

Gingras said that when the French law comes into force, Google will no longer display an overview of the content in France for European press publishers, “unless the publisher has made the arrangements to indicate that it is his wish”. 

Gingras acknowledge that the change is a direct response to the adoption of the French law that will “grant more rights to the press publishers present on the internet”. He said the decision is based on the principle that Google gains trust with users if search results are determined by relevance, not by commercial partnerships. “That’s why we don’t accept payment from anyone to be included in search results. We sell ads, not search results, and every ad on Google is clearly marked. That’s also why we don’t pay publishers when people click on their links in a search result.”

Google ‘scrapes, mines, and monetises from publishers’

He said publishers “want to be found by users so they can then grow revenue through ads or by converting readers into loyal subscribers. And Google helps publishers and journalists by helping people find news content and sending them to news sites.

“In Europe alone, people click on the news content Google links to more than 8 billion times a month – that’s 3,000 clicks per second we drive to publishers’ own websites. For large news publishers, a study by Deloitte puts the value of each click between 4-6 euro cents.” 

But, responded Jason Kint, the CEO of the US publishers’ lobby group Digital Content Next, in a Twitter post: “sending traffic has zero to do with the new copyright law and proper payment for how Google scrapes, mines, and monetises press publishers’ content while abusing its dominant position in a myriad of ways”.

Piet van Niekerk @PietNiekerk