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Moves are afoot. In Germany, parliament is reviewing a bill designed to make the likes of Google pay newspapers for the right to aggregate news. Talk is that other European counties are considering similar measures. Don’t underestimate how serious this is. If the newspapers get their way the Internet could be changed dramatically, Google’s bottom line may sink, and the editors of newspapers will become the focus of power on the Internet.  I am worried.


Many in the world of newspaper publishing don’t like Google. They hate the way Google enables users to jump from one publication’s take on a news story to another, bypassing home pages, and the newspaper’s own online navigation system. But that’s just the beginning of the story. Google also aggregates news, running snippets taken from original sources. Some publishers see this as a threat to their very existence. The solution is simple enough: make news aggregators pay. So Google pays publishers for the right to publish extracts from their stories.

In Germany, a so called ancillary copyright law is having its first reading in the lower house of parliament. Françoise Hollande has picked up on the issue, and he is not likely to drop it. Reportedly, law makers in Spain, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Portugal are looking at following Germany’s lead. As for the UK, it is well knows that News Corp, and Rupert Murdoch in particular, has a hatred of news aggregators. The ‘Times’ has only recently, and very reluctantly, agreed to have some of its content appear on Google.

Now Google has hit back, and has launched a campaign in Germany defending its position.

In a nut shell the arguments run like this. Google controls 93 per cent of search engine traffic in Europe, and it enjoys advertising revenues in Europe that dwarf online earnings of the publishers. The publishers say it is advancing its business model by piggy backing off their content.  And therefore it should pay.

Google says that it is responsible for a big chunk of publishers’ ad revenue via its Google adwords program.

There is another issue. Thanks to the Internet we have become our own editors. We choose the news stories that interest us, and can seamlessly jump from one publication to another, enjoying different slants on the same story. With Google News, different stories are displayed, complete with extracts that then link to various sources. The stories are displayed in order of popularity. It is no longer editors that choose what weighting to give a story; it’s algorithms, based on what the crowd demands.

In contrast, when we buy a newspaper the editor has chosen the stories thought to be of interest and importance, and choose the order in which they are accessed.

This is an obvious, but important point. A newspaper enjoys a monopoly on the editorial of its own publication. If we buy a newspaper, for the period of time we are reading that paper, we are consuming a monopoly’s product. To put it another way, the ‘Guardian’ has a monopoly on ‘Guardian’ content. But with news aggregators there is no such monopoly. The boundaries between one publication and others are virtually non-existent.

You could say it comes down to two arguments. First there is the question of editorial quality. The newspapers argue that because they do not receive the full commercial benefits from the content they pay for, they are unable to invest as much money in journalism and the end user loses out. The counter argument is that the Internet has opened the market up to more journalists, more writers/bloggers. It boils down to wisdom of the crowd versus wisdom of the specialists. As a side issue there is the question of comments.  I am only too aware that sometimes comments are better and more insightful than the article they are commenting about – that’s wisdom of the crowd at its best.

The second argument relates to who should have editorial control: humans or the crowd; paid editors, or everyone represented by algorithms?

Personally, I like the Internet. I like the way we can acquire our information more quickly, but I do fret over information overload. I would add that I see no evidence that the Internet and news aggregators have led to declining editorial standards – quite the reverse in fact.

But let me finish today with an argument which supports the newspaper publishers.  Eli Pariser, in his book ‘The Filter Bubble’ argues that the Internet feeds our own biases. It gives us news it thinks we are interested in. It makes no effort to give us both sides of an argument. So while you might criticise the BBC, and argue it is biased, at least it tries to be objective. The Internet has no such pretence.  As a bloke called Michael Baxter said in his book ‘The Blindfolded Masochist’: “The gatekeepers of the Internet are algorithms, so while we may assume the Internet will spread knowledge and understanding, it may, in fact, act to reinforce our erroneous views.”

These views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees


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