EU Copyright Law: Did Google News Just Get Banned?

OMG -- what has the EU just done? Are they even aware? Yesterday's vote to push through controversial new copyright protections may have seemed a good idea in a frenzy of excitement. What they show is European lawmakers have no idea how the internet actually works.

Let's leave aside musicians who were very vocal about the need for reform so they get a fairer deal. Although I would suggest they talk to their record labels about their legal streaming deals if they want to improve income and their labels' lawyers if they want illegal material taken down.

For obvious reasons, digital marketers and online publishers will be far more interested in the so-called "link tax." In a completely crazy move, the EU has voted to force big companies to pay a fee to the original copyright owner if they feature a snippet of that content with a link to the original source. As ever with an EU law, there is no confirmation of exactly what size you have to be before the fee kicks in, although Wikipedia has been given a free pass. 

Without detail, let's take a look at who this really impacts -- Google and potentially, the social media platforms. For the latter, there is no clear word yet emerging on whether Facebook owes a publisher every time someone posts a link to an article on their page. That really is one to watch, but the platform of choice could potentially be liable for a copyright fee.

No, where this law is clearly intended, and where it shows itself up to be completely crazy, is an attack on Google. The so-called "link tax" is so incompatible with the modern internet, it's hard to know where to start. 

Regular readers will know this column is often critical of Google practices on tax and anti-competitiveness issues. However, for online publishers, it is a godsend.  

If you want to check out, say, today's news on last night's iPhone launches, then a quick search will give you a page of links to what the papers have to say about the new models and the Apple Watch 4. 

As consumers move away from going direct to a publisher's home page and instead get their news through links on search, social and aggregators, you would have to say this is the best deal available. The publisher puts up their article -- which will hopefully be popular -- and ticks all the right boxes for Google's algorithm to rate it highly, resulting in many more people being made aware of the article and clicking through. 

Okay, the elephant in the room is that there may well be an ad or two in the form of paid-for links, for a related advertiser. Google is making money out of this service, but then again, why shouldn't it? It's paid to keep the lights on for its software to crawl the net and rank articles, so why shouldn't it allow an advertiser to fund that work?

There are two questions I would love to ask EU lawmakers, if this is such a draconian system. 

First -- let's bring in social again here -- why do you think news articles are provided with a bunch of options for sharing those articles? These include popular social media platforms. If publishers felt this sharing compromised their copyright, all they have to do is remove the buttons. They keep them up there because they want people to spread the word and bring people back to their site and be advertised to as they read the content, and perhaps sold a subscription.

Secondly, why do you think every publisher invests in SEO? Why do the lawmakers think publishers add carefully crafted meta-tags to each article, why do they study which headlines work the best and how the phrasing in sub-heads leads to better Google positions? Why do they constantly pump out copycat articles that are simply chasing the SEO trend of the day? 

Here's a supplementary killer question. Why do European lawmakers think so many online publishers are daily producing articles that simply answer a list of popular questions about a subject? What time is the game on tonight? What channel is it on? On any given day, you will find countless articles with these subheads, all focussed on one thing. They want to provide such a succinct answer that they become promoted as a Feature Snippet on Google, which greatly increases their chance of providing the answer Siri, Google or Alexa will provide for a voice search.

Online publishers are playing this game because it brings them huge amounts of free traffic. Ok, they need to invest in SEO skills and tools, and so on, but they don't pay for the traffic Google sends them.

This leads to a final question. Have the EU ever heard of a "no follow" link? If publishers found Google so abhorrent they could insist any links people cut and paste into social feeds or businesses put in news aggregation services feature a "no follow" so Google doesn't pick up the activity and use it as a basis of recognising it's popular material. Let's face it -- if publishers were so keen to avoid Google, they could ban crawlers on their site so they don't rank for search.

The truth is, publishers are doing the opposite because they want Google to spread the word and they want the public to spread the word. They're embracing the free traffic of SEO and social sharing because, well, it's free traffic that would otherwise go to rival publishers.

We're not talking about rogues cutting and pasting entire articles here, and passing them off as their own. We're simply talking about a search service that can only benefit publishers.

The link tax is the most bizarre decision from the EU I can remember. There is still time for the European Commission, the executive arm, to take a look at the law and see if amends can be made and suggestions offered back on how the mess might be cleared up.

Let's hope some sanity is restored.

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