Making a bad idea worse: Commission disguises ‘Google tax’ for publishers

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Günther Oettinger [European Commission]

The European Commission launched yet another consultation on copyright last month, and this one could result in a ‘Google tax’ for news. Europe needs to avoid that, writes Diana Cocoru.

Diana Cocoru is head of policy and research at OpenForum Europe, a not-for-profit organisation that advocates for open software. A version of this op-ed was published originally on the OpenForum Europe blog.

According to the Commission, the new public consultation on copyright is about treating publishers the same as record labels and giving them a full blown ancillary copyright covering not just snippets but also every other copyright use. The expanded “publisher ancillary right” is more worrying than previous attempts – not less.

The Commission opened yet another public consultation on copyright late last month. This new consultation on a so-called ancillary right for news publishers—sometimes referred to as a ‘Google tax’–and freedom of panorama surprised many. Shortly after the consultation opened, major news publisher associations launched their own campaigns.

Why pick up again on a universally condemned idea? Over the last two years, attempts at ancillary copyright in Germany and Spain have faced mounting opposition: decision-makers, businesses, associations, academics, users and the wider community have already expressed their concerns and provided evidence of how those two examples have failed. Asking the same people to send near-identical responses again, only a few months after another consultation on copyright reform, could well discourage many of them from engaging in this second consultation. That could lead to an unbalanced outcome.

Commission still undecided on 'Google tax'

European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip sent a letter to MEPs today (12 February) insisting that the European Commission still hasn’t decided whether it will include a so-called ‘Google tax’ in its upcoming copyright proposal.

The Commission is trying to rebrand the “link tax” or “ancillary right” as a “neighbouring right”. Should that reassure us? This move to supposedly treat publishers the same as record labels and give them a full blown ancillary copyright is intended to distance the debate from the strong opposition so clearly voiced against previous attempts.

The expanded “publisher ancillary right” is more worrying than previous attempts – not less. Changing the terminology could lead some readers to conclude that there is no longer a risk of ‘breaking the Internet’. However, the consultation effectively raises the perspective of an “ancillary copyright writ large”. This makes it not only as dangerous to the Internet as the Spanish and German examples, but even a broader attack to the Internet and how we use it every day.

Adding a full blown neighbouring right for news publishers makes it worse, not better. It means adding an extra layer of rights requiring additional copyright clearances. It impacts the level of private copy levies, and how such levies are allocated between journalists and publishers. It creates  fresh obstacles to text and data mining –  in addition to the other obstacles which already keep most of Europe lagging behind other countries.

Neighbouring rights are pre-Internet copyright tools. Expanding them to publishers ignores the reality of the Internet. For such a proposal to be even workable, it will be vital to apply a consistent and unambiguous definition of the term “publisher” and to eliminate the possibility of someone wrongly identifying themselves as a publisher. In today’s world, millions of pieces of text are published every day on the Internet. What does it mean to be a “publisher” in that context?

It’s not clear, from the unusual way in which this latest public consultation was launched, as well as from the framing of some of its questions, whether the Commission is necessarily taking full account of the voices of Internet users, news publishers, consumers, libraries, start-ups, online services and IT companies from all over Europe.

Copyright reform: Oettinger open to Spanish 'Google tax' model

EU Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger said that he prefers Spain’s controversial ancillary copyright law on Tuesday (14 July), sometimes nicknamed a ‘Google tax’, to the German model.