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Europe Is Moving Closer to Forcing Google to Pay for News Summaries

But critics say the copyright changes will kill memes.

Ben Sullivan

Ben Sullivan

Europe continued its fight against what news publishers call a digital advertising duopoly made up of Google and Facebook on Tuesday. Members of the European Parliament voted in favour of proposals that would stop the tech giants from indexing and copying news stories sourced from news publishers without permission.

Essentially, European publishers—like owners of newspapers—want legal ownership and payment for the clippings of news stories that readers see when they search Google and Facebook.

"In an era of fake news, publishers need to be economically viable to perform their essential role in society, providing eyewitness accounts, unearthing the truth, calling authorities to account and able to pay for quality investigative journalism," said the European Publishers Council's (EPC) executive director Angela Mills Wade in a statement after the vote.

But internet freedom advocates don't see it like that, and they argue that the proposals will usher in extreme measures that will limit the freedom of internet users in Europe at the expense of publishers' profits. Earlier this year, more than 60 organizations, including Firefox maker Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Wikimedia, signed an open letter addressed to members of the European Parliament expressing their concerns about two key proposals for the new European "Digital Single Market" Directive on copyright.

Opponents argue that key areas of the proposed reforms will mean that all user uploads to sites such as Facebook would have to be filtered to check for copyrighted content, and that physical URLs would have to be taxed with a "link tax" payable by news aggregators weighted in favour of news publishers. Sites like savethememe.net have also sprung up, vying to grab the attention of Europeans who would be vital in lobbying against such changes.

"These proposals are short-sighted and likely to have a negative impact on news publishing—as shown when similar plans were introduced in Spain and Germany," Open Rights Group's executive director Jim Killock told me in an email.

"We hope that the lead committee on copyright reform considers the impact on free expression and rejects the proposals when they vote in autumn."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Jeremy Malcolm told me that he's extremely disappointed with the vote.

"In particular, the suggestion that a tax on excerpts from news articles should apply to both online and print publications is completely unprecedented and would have dire effects for open access publishing," he said. "We are equally concerned by the proposed extension of the Commission's upload filtering proposal to require cloud storage websites to scan uploads for copyright infringements—an egregious infringement of users' human rights."

The fight has been brewing for more than two years now. In 2015, Google's first move with its Digital News Initiative came with a $165 million olive branch to help publishers succeed in a digital world, but things turned nasty when Google shuttered its Spanish news office following Spain's vote to tax Google for using news clippings. Spanish publishers eventually felt the cost of their divorce from Google, however, as news website traffic took a nosedive.

But according to the EPC, the changes would make it easier to prevent Google (and others) from routinely copying, re-using, and monetizing publishers' content without permission, and it would also be easier to prove to tech giants that publishers' content is not theirs for the taking without agreements.

Of course, Google is also fighting against any such move from Europe, arguing in a blog post last September that new copyright laws would "effectively turn the internet into a place where everything uploaded to the web must be cleared by lawyers before it can find an audience." I asked Google for any further comment today, but was simply directed to the September blog post.

On the EPC's part, Mills Wade addressed such allegations from internet freedom advocates in Tuesday's statement.

"In the wake of the scaremongering that readers will no longer be able to share links and articles for noncommercial purposes or post to social media, important amendments were adopted to clarify that this activity will continue as today perfectly legally," she said. She also stated that Europe's plan would only create a "fairer" digital eco-system in which consumers can access content on multiple platforms that's been shared with permission and on mutually beneficial terms.

A final vote on the matter will go ahead at Europe's Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) in October.

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