A Google tax to support the ailing press?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Closing the loopholes in tax laws that unfairly benefit Google must be clearly distinguished from the discussion of possible support to the ailing press, writes Jan Malinowski.

Jan Malinowski is head of the Information Society Department at the Council of Europe.

"Newspaper publishers have been looking for ways to make money with the Internet. Some have adopted paywalls, a few have pulled their print versions altogether, others have gone out of business. By and large, they were not change-ready early enough and may well have missed the boat. With the sale of paper copies going down, the situation is becoming critical for newspaper publishers. For some, their very survival is at stake.

Google has turned search and other – at first sight– free services into a productive cash machine by providing targeted advertising. Advertising depends on the search content and the user’s profile and activities. It is not particularly intrusive and sometimes it is entirely absent. For example, I receive Google news alerts by e-mail without any advertising. When I click on a link, it takes me directly to the media's own page with its own commercial communication. It is like listening to breakfast radio programmes where the newspaper’s headlines are presented – the radio may carry adverts, but if you wish to get the full story you have to get the newspaper together with its publicity.

Does Google damage the press by pocketing, as it is alleged, their intellectual property and income when it directs users to press content? The press’ lack of resolve to be de-indexed would suggest the contrary, but they are reportedly lobbying for Google to share some of its income.

Protectionism and barriers can stifle innovation. It is like trying to ban Gutenberg’s printing press in order to protect the scribes, or proposing policy measures to stop the industrial revolution in the interest of the equine trade.

Is there something worth protecting? Media’s primary objectives have been acknowledged to include the provision of information, nurturing public debate through analysis and opinion, enhancing transparency and accountability in respect of public affairs and matters of public interest or concern – media’s so-called public watchdog function. This is why media are considered a cornerstone of democracy and why the Council of Europe works hard to preserve independence and pluralism.

Around that core professional journalistic production, media have aggregated over time other content, and developed a business model around the whole parcel. However, the trend is now to disgregate the different types of content through on-demand services, blogs, social media, whistleblower sites, increased communication by civil society and a variety of platforms for the distribution of content whether produced professionally or not. A new notion of media has emerged.

In its predicament, the press turns to governments and legislators requesting a 'Lex Google' (copyright based) or a 'Google tax' for the redistribution of wealth. Should the media receive support or should journalism be promoted in their distinct quest for new opportunities?

What is the right policy response? Is there one? Prudence is a good advisor. 'What if' and caution to avoid otherwise unforeseen consequences should be in the second nature of policymakers. What if Google de-indexes media? What if the press receives support – would they have an incentive to continue employing professional journalists? Would there then be demand for a 'Twitter tax'?

Public policy is not there to protect outdated business models. However, it is entirely legitimate – it may even be necessary – for the state to support services which are essential for the public at large that the market cannot reasonably provide. In the case under consideration, the essential service is not the press but professional or quality journalism. The objective must therefore be to preserve it and make good the right to freedom of expression and ensure access of the public to reliable information, robust scrutiny and independent opinion that can inspire the pluralistic public debate required in a democratic society.

Current difficulties could have a beneficial effect on professional journalism as a whole. More important, disgregated professional journalism may well be able to attract new sources of revenue or funding. The need for public support, policies and funding, which should not be linked to taxation applicable to specific Internet actors, may only be temporary until new business models develop. All avenues should be explored.

Is this a reflection for the 47-member Council of Europe, representing more than 800 million people, with its fundamental purpose of preserving and promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law?"


Subscribe to our newsletters