By Don Quijones, Spain & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
Unbeknownst to most EU citizens, their ability to use and enjoy the Internet freely and unmolested by penny-pinching, power-hungry authorities may soon be coming to an end.
The European Commission is preparing to launch new sweeping copyright legislation this fall. As part of that process the rather Orwellian-titled EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Günther Oettinger, is mulling the possibility of adopting a new ancillary copyright law that would essentially force websites to pay a special fee for linking to other websites.
To wit, from Euractiv:
Oettinger has praised ancillary copyright laws several times in recent months, as the European Commission gets ready to propose EU copyright legislation this fall. He was speaking yesterday at a meeting of the European Parliament’s culture committee.
Asked about the prospect of a European ancillary copyright law, Oettinger replied: “I’m open to it.” Ancillary copyright laws essentially force internet search engines (DQ: and potentially other websites, including blogs and social media) to pay fees to news publishers when they post snippets from articles in search results.
“In Spain, the development and the awareness process seem to be further along than in Germany. We’re assessing that and will integrate it into our copyright proposal,” Oettinger said.
Oettinger is hardly a stranger to hare-brained schemes. A few years ago, as Commission Vice-President, he suggested that heavily indebted European countries should be forced to fly their flag at half-mast over EU buildings, at least until they sorted out their debt problems. In other words, countries should be shamed into rectifying their finances. Needless to say, the proposal did not go down well with some countries. Several MEPs wrote a letter of protest to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso demanding Oettinger’s apology or resignation.
After a swift apology-cum-denial, Oettinger moved on to greener pastures. Now, as EU Digital Commissioner, his ideas have the potential to impact the lives of hundreds of millions of Europeans. His latest brainwave – the continental-wide application of a new copyright system that would make linking to other European websites taxable – is based on a plan that has already been tried and road-tested in both Germany and Spain, with predictably dire consequences.
The first country to introduce the fee was Germany, in 2013. However, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) notes, the law was a manifest failure since most publishers willingly forfeited their right to payment from Google as soon as they realized just how much traffic they would lose from not being indexed on news aggregators such as Google News.
When its turn came to impose itself in the internet space, the Spanish government decided to go one step further, by making the right to payment inalienable – i.e. installing a mandatory scheme instead of a voluntary one – so that even the news organization quoted is not permitted to waive it. As I wrote in To Protect the Press, Spain Tries to Muffle the Internet, to understand the main motive behind the law, which came into effect on January 1 this year, one need only read the following statement by Luis Enrique, the chairman of AEDE, Spain’s most powerful newspaper publishers’ lobby:
This is the most important step taken by the Spanish government for the protection of the press.
And there you have it, the perfect summation from the organization that lobbied for the law: “Protection of the Press.”
What the new legislation effectively seeks to achieve is to enshrine into law a dual government shakedown and protection racket. It is a perfect example of cartel economics in action. If passed (and it almost certainly will), the government will have new powers to shake down just about everybody in Spain who links to a news or entertainment-focused website, while at the same time protecting the traditional (and extremely loyal) gate-keepers of public information, the mainstream press, from the consequences of declining sales and shrinking relevance.
At least that was the theory. But then reality – in the form of a company called Google – got in the way. Refusing to be shaken down for providing a useful service to Spain’s newspaper publishers free of charge, the world’s most powerful tech firm suspended the Spanish edition of its news service. It also removed all links to Spanish newspapers from all its Google News sites around the world.
It didn’t take long for the impact to be felt. As El Confidencial reports, only six months after the law’s passage, dissent is already rising within AEDE’s ranks. Most importantly, Grupo PRISA, the owner of El País, Spain’s biggest selling newspaper, and the radio broadcaster Cadena SER, has announced that it won’t charge the fee, even though the law specifically states that it must. “Nobody likes the new law,” said PRISA’s CEO Juan Luis Cebrián.
For the moment the so-called Google Tax has raised no funds and nobody seems to know exactly how the fees will be collected or distributed. What is clear is that opposition to the law, even among those who initially lobbied for it, is on the rise. Yet that hasn’t stopped the European Commission from contemplating rolling out a very similar scheme across the whole of Europe.
As EFF notes, laws like these function as a big stick for European countries to use against large US tech companies. But that’s only part of the story:
Authorities are concerned that US-based tech companies are profiting from European data without paying their fair share of tax on the revenue earned. But if that was all this was about, there would be much more direct ways of addressing it than by passing special-interest amendments to copyright law to benefit press publishers.
What concerns EFF more is that these ancillary copyright laws form part of a broader trend of derogation from the right to link… Once it becomes illegal for aggregators to freely link news summaries to publicly-available websites, it becomes that much easier for those who want to prohibit other sorts of links, such as links to political YouTube videos, to make their case.
At the turn of this fledgling century, the list of countries using repressive measures to restrict Internet freedom read like a who’s who of unsavory regimes: China, Bahrain, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Cuba… you get the gist!
Now everybody’s at it, including a growing number of ostensibly democratic states (among whom I hesitate to include the EU). Through measures such as the U.S.’s recent attack on Net Neutrality, the UK’s sweeping Internet surveillance laws, and now Spain and possibly Brussels’ “Google Tax,” the establishment seeks to dilute the very essence of the Internet, by slowing users down, erecting barriers, and monitoring our every movement. In so doing so they are setting the stage for the mother of all battles. By Don Quijones, Raging Bull-Shit.
And the fun continues, with a tax ID for each and every global citizen? Read… New Global Taxman to Wage War on Informal Economy