The European Commission is still (slowly) moving forward with its plan to dump a link tax on service providers like Google, Facebook, etc. in hopes of propping up local news outfits. The plan has been in the works for a couple of years now and it’s looking like the longer the planning goes on, the less likely it is to result in something that makes its advocates happy.
A long report from Politico details the current state of this doomed venture. And it is doomed. Even if implemented in a way that makes news outlets happiest, the end result will be less incoming traffic from some of the most-used sites in the world. Some news agencies aren’t so sure this is the way forward.
“Other stakeholders are challenging the provision … questioning not only whether this is the best way of addressing concerns of press publishers vis-a-vis digital technologies, but also questioning whether the Commission proposal is adequately restricted to such concerns,” Therese Comodini Cachia, the Maltese rapporteur shepherding the proposal through Parliament, told POLITICO.
Translation: Opponents of the plan, including some small web publishers, worry it could choke traffic to their sites by creating a thicket of regulations that will dissuade Google and other platforms from driving users to them. These critics also argue that a publisher’s right will create a “link tax” (a phrase that supporters liken to a slur) but won’t achieve its backers’ main aim: to save the news sector’s broken business model.
That’s the problem with short-sighted legislation like this: it fails to consider the options available to those hit with the link tax. And it’s not as though there’s no information available that indicates what the future would hold for supposed beneficiaries of the link tax. Past efforts in Spain and Belgium to institute a link tax (targeting Google) resulted in the search engine pulling out of the market by dumping any search results that might have resulted in tax liability.
Then there are the numerous ways it might affect the average computer user — beyond finding fewer local articles on Facebook or fewer search results when Googling.
The plan’s loudest critic has been Green MEP Julia Reda. Originally elected as a member of the Pirate party, Reda’s encyclopedic knowledge of copyright has made her a respected adversary for the publishers. She’s shown a particular knack for condensing the legalese of copyright reform into alarmist soundbites. She has argued, for example, that the Commission proposal could affect how articles are shared on Twitter, something both the Commission and the publishers deny.
As is to be expected, the lack of forward progress is being blamed on Google. Proponents of the link tax are complaining about Google’s lobbying efforts in Europe, as though the company should do nothing more than sit down, shut up, and start paying FOR DRIVING TRAFFIC TO THEIR WEBSITES.
Opponents of the tax say it’s not up to the EC to force other companies to prop up struggling businesses. Those advocating for the tax say it’s not up to the EC to question the soundness of their business decisions. It’s about ownership… or so they claim.
The publishers counter that it’s not up to Parliament to analyze the merits of their commercial strategy. What’s at issue is a basic question of ownership, and the publishers say it is incumbent on legislators to protect their rights. In the pre-digital age, such protections weren’t necessary because news content didn’t fall victim to large-scale piracy. The internet, the publishers argue, has changed that because articles can be disseminated far and wide with a few clicks.
This attitude speaks directly to the concerns raised by Green MEP Julia Reda. The publishers view sharing as piracy — a view not shared at all by millions of people who post links on social media and, again, help drive traffic to the sites. Very few people share news articles by taking entire posts and redistributing them through third parties. And Google — the top target in the proposed legislation — does nothing remotely approaching this bizarre definition of piracy with its links to sources and small snippets of article text.
That disconnect between what publishers feel is “right” and what the rest of the world believes is acceptable is yet another nail in this legislation’s coffin. Even if it passes, it won’t do what publishers hope it will. Google will stop linking to European content. People will find less and less local content being shared. And for all the complaining about Google’s lobbying efforts, publishers have no problem touting their own as a reason the terrible proposed legislation might one day become law.
Despite the skepticism, the publishing lobby remains sanguine, confident that its deep political connections will ultimately see the legislation through.
“The news media sector is optimistic that policymakers agree on the need for a publishers’ right,” said Wout van Wijk, executive director of News Media Europe, a lobbyist for press publishers. “Such a right will create the legal certainty needed for further investments and innovation to guarantee a free and pluralistic media landscape in Europe.”
Granting this right won’t fix publishers’ problems. It might give them more ways to sue, but flagging new agencies can’t be legislated back into fiscal health — especially if it means levying taxes on US companies to prop up European entities. In the end, publishers may get what they THINK they want, but they won’t be seeing any return on the lobbying investment. Anything that discourages the free (as in “open”) dissemination of information tends to work out worst for those compiling the information. A link tax is just a band-aid to be applied to the internet’s surface, unable to staunch the blood flow of the new publishing industry’s internal wounds.