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The Globe and Mail

German search engine bill sets bad precedent

If you can't ransom it, punish it. That seems to be the German media's Google policy. After intense lobbying from the country's publishers, the German parliament is about to vote on a new law stipulating that search engines need publishers' consent before listing freely available stories. This will even apply to headlines and short, automatically generated excerpts that Google and others use to promote search results.

Haunted by a faltering print business and desperately struggling to find viable business models for the digital age, German newspapers allege that search engines monetize someone else's intellectual property and hope the law will pressure Google into signing paid licence agreements with them.

This is a cheeky argument. Publishers who don't want to be listed by Google have always had the opportunity to opt out, as all 154 members of the Brazilian newspaper association did recently. The only benefactors of such a move, however, would be the websites deciding to stick with Google. German media currently get 30 to 50 per cent of their online readers through the U.S. search engine. And this audience already means money, in the form of higher ad rates.

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Google is adamant that it will not pay any fees, but will abide by the law. So it would have to delist every newspaper unwilling to license its headlines and snippets for free. The company is careful not to threaten such a move publicly, because it is currently under pressure for alleged anti-competitive behaviour in Brussels. Behind closed doors, German anti-Google diehards toy with the idea of using antitrust laws as a stick on that occasion. However, legal experts consider it impossible to force Google to use content it must pay for.

Given that even the proponents of the new law only expect that licence fees from search engines will contribute 3 to 6 per cent of newspapers' revenues in the future, the whole battle looks irrational. Both camps may prefer to reach a consensual agreement. But a punitive law would set a bad precedent for other European countries, where local publishers are also asking their governments to help them tax Google.

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