Google’s trouble dealing with the EU isn’t new, but the battle has just taken a whole new direction. Shortly after the passage of the General Protection Data Regulation (GDPR) in Europe, a copyright act was introduced. France has decided to be the first one to really challenge the search behemoth to try and squeeze money out of them for their links. This isn’t just a legal struggle, but a power struggle between regulators who arguably don’t understand the internet and a search giant which has a virtual monopoly on search.
How will this all play out and what ramifications does it have for the internet at large? All of that depends on how either side handles it. The situation isn’t really good for either party and is slated on a premise which defies the general premise of the internet (links are a boon for the recipient) but also with the best intentions in mind (arguably). Let’s see what’s going on, why it’s happening, and what we should expect to happen with Europe.
Paying For Links?
The skinny of the story is that France wants Google to pay to use images and excerpts from articles when they’re listed. The difference between a link and an excerpt is a thin line though for most sites on the internet. Where does fair use end and infringement begin? Most websites are more than happy to have links since they bring in traffic, and most are more than willing to have content scraped to reach a wider audience.
The crux of the argument is that Google makes the news too attractive in one portal which causes users to treat each news article as a single commodity. Users don’t want to stay in the same portal, they want to mix and match what news they read which is costing publishers. This costs publishers since they don’t keep users for as many page views per session. While this sounds like an ignorant argument on the surface, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Google search makes up roughly 90% of search traffic in France. This also can be extrapolated to mean that roughly 9 out of 10 people are going to be seeing a Google endorsed link before anything else, unless they have a specific process for news.
While Google has won their market share due to beating out other search engines, there is something to be said about what happens if Google “likes” you or not for your search results. Being a ghost on Google means basically not existing to the internet at large for many markets.
France has basically chosen to try and force Google’s hand in negotiating with publishers. Google tried just using the headline and stripping images and excerpts. This fit the word, but not the spirit of the law however, which caused French regulators to intervene.
The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly In Their Domain
The first attempt to really enforce charging Google to link to news happened in Spain. Spain passed a law in 2014 which required news aggregators to pay for a license to use said content. Google’s response was to leave the market by pulling out Google News in Spain.
This is Google’s typical modus operandi when facing regulations they don’t agree with. Google resorted to just pulling out of the Chinese market entirely when they faced Chinese regulatory pressures. Their first attempt was to move to Hong Kong and follow the word but not the spirit of the law. How much of this was philosophical and how much was pragmatic is a bit of a different metric to weigh and is way beyond a single article.
Chinese law is arguably a different beast than European copyright law. There are implications to following or not following Chinese law as a whole which can impact business elsewhere both in and beyond the individual market. Skirting European law just costs business in parts of Europe. With Brexit and Switzerland existing in Europe but largely independent of European laws, it’s arguably less impactful to Google’s core offerings.
Spain’s attempts at force Google’s hands arguably did nothing at best to traffic to their news sites. Google didn’t play ball and news sites at best didn’t lose traffic. There really wasn’t going to be a great outcome to this process unfortunately. Google ended up with the upper hand, they left, but it didn’t really hurt much.
Where Is This All Going?
Ultimately, their decision in Spain is probably going to impact how they respond in France. Google has traditionally chosen to just pull out of a market instead of changing how they do business. They pulled out of China entirely, they pulled out of Spain for news, they’ve basically just decided to take the path of least resistance to anything which isn’t profitable.
Google’s general philosophy is to pull out of the market unless they can win. Either way, they come out ahead. It’s no secret that Google’s primary business isn’t search, but ads. Even if they pull out the news portion of search entirely, people will still use Google for almost everything else. The other power they have is that the Spanish language internet spans continents and countries. They don’t strictly need Spain to deliver some news through search. There are plenty of countries more than glad to get pennies on the dollars for ads as long as they get the right pennies.
I expect the same to happen with France. French is spoken in many countries. While it may not be the same dialect or even same type of news as in France, the countries with less scruples will be more than glad to receive the traffic. Switzerland is outside the EU but still in the Schengen for now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Switzerland capitalizes on this, especially if they lose their Schengen status.
Making Sense of It All
You don’t charge someone who is handing out your advertisements for the cost of the printing. This is the internet equivalent of what France is trying to do with Google. While on the surface, the natural response would be that this is stepping regulatory bounds, what is Google in our advertisement distribution scheme? This is the question strangely absent from every report of this news.
If Google is the equivalent of a contractor who is selling the printing with the distribution service, this makes perfect sense, otherwise, it’s a lack of understanding of the internet. Is Google profiting on the backs of news media or is news media getting their money from the graces of Google? It’s hard to argue one way or another with the virtual monopoly Google holds over search. The waters are way too murky. It really could be in anywhere in between depending on how you look at it or else this would be an easy open and shut case.
This specific case will probably set the trend in Europe which could affect the larger internet depending on what Google does. Will Google win with their argument, give in, or just pull out of Europe in general? It’s really hard to say exactly what they’ll do. There isn’t really a right answer which makes both parties happy.
How This Impacts the Internet
If Google wins with their argument, they’ll end up overturning the law which is predicated on a wrong premise. If they give in, it sets the stage for every country to do the same. Should they convince news outlets to give in, it decentivizes news outlets from asking money and leads to a race to the bottom (see also: clickbait). They can also just choose a strategic retreat, but that means giving up on all of Europe. Google’s near monopoly means they can just strong-arm the whole process.
This is one of those problems with no right answers overall. While Google can afford to be knocked down a peg or three, the underlying theory behind the law means that this will impact more than just Google. Is your blog’s link going to be affected accordingly? It really depends on how Google approaches this problem and how the courts uphold this ruling.
The GDPR has already added a lot of complexity to non-European blogs if they want to legally sustain traffic from Europe. You’re not likely to see ramifications from failing to care about the GDPR unless you get big, but it’s still a concern for search rankings and advertising. I really don’t care about Europe, but a failure to comply means I cut off important income streams (especially while smaller), so I end up complying. Many companies are going to be left wondering what the right answer is and what retaliatory measures might be taken if they don’t comply. The ruling on this problem will just complicate it further.
Originally published at https://somedudesays.com on April 10, 2020.