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    Spain Wants to Tax the Hyperlink

    Written by

    Jason Koebler

    Staff Writer

    The hyperlink is a crazy thing if you think about it. One of HTML's most basic building blocks has completely changed the news industry, turning black text into blue (or in Motherboard's case, purple), and taking a practice that was one completely verboten in journalism—snagging a competitor's work—and making it commonplace. But soon, if you want to use them in Spain, it's gonna cost you.

    The law, called canon AEDE, would put a tax on aggregation, and would make it illegal for blogs, news sites, and perhaps even Google News to link out to original sources without paying a fee. Make no mistake, this would fundamentally change how the media industry's link economy currently works (at least in Spain—we'll see if others follow suit).

    The idea is so big that one Spanish blog called it the "most infamous law in the history of the internet." That might be a bit of hyperbole, but screwing with how the internet works like this certainly has the potential to cause a bit of a mess, if nothing else.

    The way the law is written, it'd require news sites to pay a fee for "listing a link and a meaningful description of it," which probably means that the block quotes plus a few sentences reblogs that have become popular all around the web would be subject to it. 

    Social media sites will be exempt from the requirement, but, beyond that, the Spanish government has remained remarkably mum about what, exactly, a "meaningful description" of a news story is. 

    Is what I'm doing right now an aggregation? I'm grabbing information from official government sources, but I was also alerted to the existence of this law by a post over at Quartz, who has been covering this bill since it was first proposed back in February. A link over to them is certainly in order, but if I can confirm and report the story out myself, does it then become mine?

    If I'm not talking to people in Madrid about this, can I write about it at all without paying up? Can I do it ethically?

    When's the last time you read a news story without links to other sites in it? Is the link text itself a "meaningful description?" Isn't the purpose of a link to provide a "meaningful description" of what you're about to click? How much would it cost me to license the links I'm writing about here?

    The question of credit, and of links (or lack thereof) is always a hot topic in journalism. Right now, the things you can get away with, so long as you throw back a link, knows few bounds. That's mostly because policing the internet and how people behave on it and what they publish is a complete nightmare. I suspect Spain will soon learn that lesson—how the heck do you put a tax on all meaningful outbound links?

    Glenn Greenwald's NSA scoops were notoriously banned from some of the most important subreddits, which drive, at times, hundreds of thousands of clicks. In the meantime, someone from another news site would write a couple introductory sentences, block quote half of his story, slap a new headline on it, and reap the rewards of Greenwald's own reporting. 

    On any given day, the "popular" version of a big news story—the one that ends up getting passed around Twitter, shooting to the top of Reddit, being mass shared on Facebook or posted on Digg or Slashdot or Drudge Report or leading off Google News—is very often not the one that was originally reported, written, and published.

    In some cases, the aggregation is simply a better read—it trims the fat, gets to the point, is more pointed, takes a different angle. In others, you've got a straight rip with a similar headline that just so happens to win the aggregation lottery. Some sites specialize in the former, others are notorious practitioners of the latter.

    In any case, the internet, as a whole, has not decided how to deal with aggregation. Instead, everyone does it, at least sometimes—even the traditional Spanish daily newspapers who are trying to push through canon AEDE.

    There are certainly ways to make money without aggregating. Maybe Spanish newspapers have figured it out—they'll be able to sue violators for as much as €300,000. Instead, I'm guessing this is just going to turn into a big mess.

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