Google plays hardball with European news publishers

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

While the US obsessed on Wednesday over what technically constitutes impeachment for a sitting American president, some European news publishers may have been focused on something quite different: namely, a decision by Google to play hardball with French media companies when it comes to linking to their content in its search results. As of Wednesday, unless a French publisher specifically says that it wants Google to do so, the search giant will no longer include short excerpts from news stories in its results. Instead, there will just be a headline. It’s not exactly clear how this will look in practice—in an earlier mockup of results with text from news publishers excluded, there was just a big white space where the excerpt and image were supposed to go.

Why is Google doing this? Because the French government recently passed a law that requires the search company to pay publishers if it uses even short excerpts of their content on its search pages. The French law is a local variation of a recently adopted European Union copyright directive known as Article 11, which says that publishers are entitled to compensation for the use of even small chunks of text, a payment some refer to as a “link tax.” This in turn was inspired by similar attempts in other EU countries to get Google and others to pay for excerpts. Germany tried with its Leistungsschutzrecht für Presseverleger law in 2013, and Spain tried with a similar law in 2014. In Germany, a number of publishers had their results removed from Google News when it refused to pay them, but later relented when their traffic collapsed by as much as 40 percent. In Spain, Google eventually removed Spain completely from the Google News index.

Google maintains that its news excerpts send publishers a huge amount of traffic—as the company’s head of news, Richard Gingras, pointed out in a blog post on Wednesday—and that this in turn generates revenue via advertising. Publishers, however, note that ad revenue is falling, in part because Google and Facebook control the lion’s share of the market—which is why Google also likes to highlight the Google News Initiative, through which the company funds research and development (and even the creation of entirely new local news outlets, as it is doing through partnerships in both the UK and US). The News Initiative got its start in 2006, when Belgium was the first country to sue Google for using content from local publishers without their consent. The two sides eventually settled, and Google agreed to fund research and development for the industry, and then offered similar deals to France and other countries.

As welcome as this kind of funding might be for struggling newsrooms and media outlets, it also serves to make media companies even more dependent on and integrated into the Google universe, as a number of industry observers noted in a CJR feature on the patronage of Google and Facebook. The unfortunate reality for most digital publishers is that they rely on Google’s traffic whether they like it or not, and the company’s flexing of its muscles in France is only the latest evidence. And the company’s decision shouldn’t have come as any surprise to anyone who has been following the issue: when the European Union was debating whether to implement what became Article 11 of the The Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, Gingras said that the company might pull Google News out of Europe altogether, just as it did in Spain.

Why France thought it might succeed where both Spain and Germany failed is difficult to say. Hope seems to spring eternal that someone will finally be able to force Google to pay publishers for linking to their news, and that this in turn will solve their financial woes. Paying publishers directly is something Facebook recently said it plans to start doing with selected outlets, but there is no sign that Google intends to back down on its position any time soon, legislation or no legislation.

Here’s more on Google, news and paying publishers:

Unacceptable: The French minister of culture, Frank Riester, said in a statement that Google’s response to the new law was unacceptable and “contrary to the spirit and the text” of the legislation. The head of the European Publishers’ Council accused Google of “abusing its market power and putting itself above the law, while at the same time pretending they are acting in line with the law,” and said the company’s decision would “endanger professional journalism.”

Scraping and mining: Jason Kint, the CEO of the US publishers’ lobby group Digital Context Next (previously known as the Online Publishers Association), said on Twitter that Gingras should change his title to head of PR, and that “Sending traffic has zero to do with the new copyright law and proper payment for how Google scrapes, mines, and monetizes press publishers’ content while abusing its dominant position in a myriad of ways.”

No more Google: A study published last year by researchers at Stanford and the University of Michigan looked at what happened to news consumption in Spain after Google News shut down there, and found that the loss of the service mostly affected traffic to smaller news publishers, while some of the larger ones remained unaffected. Research in other countries, however, has shown drops of more than double digits when publishers are removed from the index.

Other notable stories:

Impeachment talk continued to swirl Wednesday, following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of an investigation into Trump’s behavior, and the delivery of an internal whistleblower’s report to Congress. The White House released a document (not a transcript, as some news outlets mistakenly called it, but notes compiled during the call) that seemed to show Donald Trump asking Ukraine’s president to look into allegations of corruption involving Joe Biden, and even offering the help of Attorney-General William Barr for such an investigation. Trump says the document doesn’t show a “quid pro quo,” but observers said even to ask for such interference in a political campaign likely qualifies as an impeachable offense, and that Trump said on the call that he needed “a favor,” right after the Ukrainian president said how grateful he was for American military support.

In other impeachment news, the Washington Post reported that the acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire—who was forced to take over the job after the previous director, Daniel Coats, stepped down last month—threatened to resign unless the White House allowed him to testify openly about the whistleblower’s allegations. Within minutes of the Post report, it had been denied by Maguire in an official statement, and by White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who said on Twitter that “This is actually not true. And we would have gone on the record to say that if [the Post] had given us more than 6 minutes to respond.”

Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times and former head of the BBC, warned of a “crisis threatening to engulf British journalism,” and said the largely print-centric press in that country was in danger of experiencing “something close to a wipeout.” Thompson made the comments as part of the third annual Steve Hewlett memorial lecture in London, held in memory of a BBC media-show host who died of cancer in 2017. Thompson also said that blaming Google and Facebook for the industry’s woes was a convenient myth.

Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton writes that the proposed merger of Vox Media and New York magazine “isn’t a marriage, but it’s a deal that makes sense.” Benton argues that the combination involves “two companies with similar editorial values and brands that mostly complement instead of overlap,” and that this is “the kind of smart merger we should see more of” in the media industry.

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