Google just settled a contentious, high-profile dispute with French newspaper publishers, who wanted to charge the tech giant a "link tax" for including its articles in search results. Instead, Google has agreed to pay $82 million into a "Digital Media Innovation Fund" that will ostensibly grant French publishers revenue necessary to improve and better profit off of their digital presence. It's a similar deal to the one reached with Belgian publishers, and seems likely to send a signal to Germany, where another such dispute is still simmering.
Many on this side of the pond have vocally decried both the link tax proposal and Google's settlement--the link tax because it would limit access to information, and the settlement because it appears to encourage national publishing industries to hit Google up for cash. Mashable calls the settlement "a dangerous precedent" for the web, and tech writer Lauren Weinstein equates the whole thing to "extortion."
Which, please. There's no doubt that the internet is siphoning readership away from newspapers, and it seems pretty clear that search engines like Google are giving users access to information that they once would have had to pay for--while Google profits from delivering said information. This is especially so in the case of platforms like Google News, where entire paragraphs are excerpted for the benefit of the searcher--in other words, the Google customer. Unless the searcher clicks on a Le Monde news story after reading that first graf--most people don't--then the only one who profits is Google.
So framing the European complainants as extortionists is not only dumb, it's dishonest. There's a very real issue at the core of this, and these nations have a grievance that's worth scrutinizing. Which isn't to say that Google hasn't any valid counter-arguments--it does. Google correctly argues that it provides French newspapers with a vastly broader audience than it would ever obtain otherwise. As such, if France proceeded with legislation, Google memorably and haughtily threatened to up and yank all French news sources out of its search results and News aggregator altogether, depriving the industry of what it claimed was four billion page views a month.
And so we're left with the impasse we began with. A one-lump multimillion dollar sum may be a potent temporary balm, but it won't do much to right the problem at its root. The big questions linger: in a globalized media industry, how much reward do we apportion the messenger, even if it comes at the expense of the creator? How do we reward important, time-intensive investigative reporting when eyeballs are strained and most are willing to settle for aggregated snippets?
For newspapers to ask for a tax for every link is absurd; search engines are now our default mode of information attainment. It won't be long before they're wholly treated--perhaps even regulated--like a utility. And every conceivable iteration of media serves to profit from its headlines and ledes being included in search; we search to locate, to click, to consume, rarely to skim.
But aggregation, as in Google News, is another story. Here, the consumer is offered a newspaper of the world, one that Google assembles at no cost from the best bits produced by cash-strapped agencies around the globe. It seems reasonable that if Google wants to offer this product as is--and let's face it, it's positioned as a one-stop news source, one that ideally makes the notion of marking Le Monde as your homepage obsolete.
Maybe, while the "link tax" is a bridge too far, something like an "excerpt tax," or an "aggregation tax" is more reasonable. If Google, or any other search engine or algorithmic aggregator, wants to profit by excerpting original reportage, perhaps compensation for anything beyond a headline and a lede sentence is in order. Google and the newspapers could agree on a flat rate for listing stories in such instances, thus compensating investigative outlets for supplying fresh information to its living digital newspaper.
Now, I have no idea how this would work, technically speaking. And it would raise all sorts of nasty copyright issues and blogoshperic snafus, sure. But we really do need to be thinking more about how to keep newspapers and reporters properly compensated, as the internet will soon be the sole source of news consumption for most of the world. One lump sums and promises of more page views isn't enough to keep either afloat.