Publishers see PR behind Google’s news and search tests in response to the new EU copyright directive

Lawmakers are putting the finishing touches on how the new controversial European Union’s Copyright Directive will look over the next few weeks, and the shots being fired from both sides are intensifying, with Google rolling out drastic tests to its news and search service and publisher trade bodies calling its bluff.

Last week, Google started experimenting with a small percentage of users in Europe to understand what the impact of the proposed EU Copyright Directive would have. Google’s test refers to Article 11, which proposes that publishers have the right to strike commercial agreements with aggregators, like Google Search or Google News, for displaying their content.

Screenshots of the tests show that Google would have to strip out headlines, snippets and thumbnails if the proposed legislation is passed. Essentially, the pages look like they haven’t loaded.

Google is running tests with a small number of EU users.

The suggestion that Google would roll out this type of product doesn’t seem a serious one, according to four publishing trade bodies the European Publishers Council, the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the European Magazine Media Association and News Media Europe, which allege this is “much more likely a way of scaremongering.”

Google’s argument is it would have to strike deals with publishers to showcase snippets, headlines and thumbnails for News and Search services. A German study by copyright-collection group VG Media looked at who would benefit from updated copyright laws and found small publishers would receive less than 1 percent of the revenue generated while Axel Springer would receive 64 percent. While large publishing houses can use their size to leverage broad deals, making commercial agreements with the 80,000 news publishers around the world that can show up in Google Search and News would be a hard task for any company. This would likely cause Google to stop showing publisher content for fear of getting hit with copyright fines. This argument rests on the implication that the legislation means that licensing deals are required to show content on aggregator services.

“There is nothing mandatory about it on either side,” said Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers’ Council, whose members include News UK, Axel Springer, Schibsted, The Telegraph, Bonnier and Gruner + Jahr, among others.

“[Google] wants to portray a doomsday scenario that would never happen,” she added. “It’s an interpretation that is distorted in order to provide a picture which makes it look worse than it is. Publishers have rights and can give those rights away. It’s just legal clarity to enforce those rights if you want to do, they are not obliged to comply.”

Google states it’s in favor of updating copyright for the digital age to protect content creators. In December, Richard Gringras, vp of Google News, said that Article 11 would hamper smaller publishers and limit consumer choice, making market leader Google — which commands 92 percent of the search engine market, according to December figures from Statcounter — able to pick “winners and losers” in terms of the content that it displays. As a way to avoid unintended consequences, Google calls for “the choice to waive the need for a commercial license for their content.” Publishers say this already exists in the legislation as part of a legal right, rather than a requirement.

Currently, Google said it sends people to news sites 10 billion times a month. Each user visit was worth on average between €0.04 ($0.05) and €0.08 ($0.09) to publishers, according to a Deloitte study, so it adds up for large publishers (besides ad revenue that Google sends to publishers).

Not all publishers are for the proposal. European Innovative Media Publishers, which represents a number of smaller European publisher trade bodies, is lobbying against the new directive, also under the assumption that it would require mandatory commercial deals between publishers and aggregators. The legislation’s opponents criticize Brussels Eurocrats for being slow-moving and not understanding the digital ecosystem.

The language of the directive will be thrashed out over the next few weeks, along with other details like whether the numbers of words in a snippet will be decided at a national level — as a Europewide directive, there’s not much wiggle room for interpretation at a local level —  before European Parliament decides on the implementation.

According to Mills Wade, a likely outcome is that publishers can voluntarily join national collective management services who would negotiate aggregators on their behalf, saving those companies from having to speak to hundreds of organizations.

Far from hurting Google, she suggests the new legislation will encourage more competition and innovation and is optimistic of the way that negotiations are running. “The key is that member states agree to something that allows the right to be used and enforced without too many stipulations and limitations.”

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