The European Commission presented a plan today (14 September) to charge internet companies for linking to online news following a heated, two-year-long fight over whether the “Google tax” will help publishers stay profitable—or simply be overzealous regulation that could “break the internet”.
The measure is one of the most fought over parts of a controversial overhaul of EU copyright law that the European Commission presented in Strasbourg.
Hours before the executive published its copyright proposal, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in his annual State of the Union speech that he wants “journalists, publishers and authors to be paid fairly for their work, whether it is made in studios or living rooms, whether it is disseminated offline or online, whether it is published via a copying machine or commercially hyperlinked on the web.”
The overhaul includes other measures that will make broadcasting more available across EU borders and force Youtube, Facebook and other online platforms to use technologies to police and remove videos that violate copyright.
The so-called Google tax for news publishers has been sharply criticised by Google and other internet companies that came under fire when similar laws were introduced in Germany and Spain.
“It basically copies the German concept but makes it much broader so the negative impact will be bigger than from the German one,” said Constantin Gissler, head of the Brussels office for Bitkom, a German association that represents tech companies including Google.
In a blog post published today, Google said, “It would hurt anyone who writes, reads or shares the news—including the many European startups working with the news sector to build sustainable business models online,” the company wrote.
A group of news publishers led by German giant Axel Springer have lobbied for an EU-wide rule requiring fees for snippets.
“The Commission’s plan to create a copyright for news publishers in Europe is a significant and historic step,” said Carlo Perrone, head of the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association, told AFP.
Critics said the German and Spanish laws serve as cautionary tales. in Germany, Google received an exemption from publishers and continued showing snippets in search results. In Spain, the company shut down its Google News service entirely.
Günther Oettinger, the German commissioner in charge of EU tech policies, first floated the idea for an EU-wide licensing fee to show snippets of news shortly after he took office in 2014.
The proposal that was published earlier today includes a six-sentence mandate requiring national governments give publishers the right to demand money from internet companies—but the terms are left open and only specify the “digital use” of news.
What’s a snippet?
A German court ruled last year that a snippet contains seven words of text. But the new EU bill doesn’t define what a snippet is—or whether the law will even target snippets.
During a press conference this afternoon, Andrus Ansip, the Commission vice president in charge of the digital single market, tried to dispel fears that the EU wants to demand fees for links listed in online search results.
“Hyperlinking will not be taxed in the future,” Ansip said.
MEPs are divided over the publishers’ rights.
Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake warned yesterday that the plan “would break the internet as we know it”.
Others warned that Juncker’s pledge to help journalists earn better will fall flat if internet companies are forced to pay fees directly to publishers.
But publishers insist the law will help journalists hold onto their jobs while the news business struggles to make profits.
“If publishers are profitable and continue to employ journalists, journalists benefit. If publishers have to cut costs and staff, journalists lose out,” said Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers’ Council.
The European Commission named the modernisation of copyright law as one of its priorities for the 16-point digital single market plans presented in May 2015.
The Commission proposed a first copyright measure in December 2015 that would allow consumers to use digital content like Netflix when they travel within Europe, as long as they accessed it legally.
EU Digital Commissioner announced that the executive will propose a further copyright reform measure in September or October 2016. The proposal was originally expected in spring 2016 but was delayed. One of the most controversial ideas floated by the Commission is the 'Google tax' or ancillary copyright law for online news publishers. National laws in Germany and Spain allowed media companies to charge online search engines to show their content in search results.