Berlin wants to build toll booths on the Internet

GlobalPost, March 16, 2012

BERLIN, Germany — The internet community is up in arms over a planned copyright law which would force search engines and news aggregators like Google News to pay traditional media firms for publishing snippets of their online content.

Media groups in Germany, such as the powerful Springer Verlag, which publishes Bild and Die Welt, and Bertelsmann, have long complained that sites such as Google News are making money off the back of their journalists’ work. They say that, as the original publishers, they should be compensated in some way.

Now the government is taking up their cause. In early March, Angela Merkel’s coalition government announced that it would draw up new legislation to compensate publishers.

In the recent past, Merkel’s government has supported the libertarian status quo on the internet. For example, it opposed the ACTA treaty, which information freedom advocates had fought because of its stringent copyright measures.

But this time, the government has stated that “commercial internet companies, such as search engines and news aggregators, should in future pay a fee to the publishers for the dissemination of press products (like newspaper articles.) In this way, publishers would share in the profits that commercial internet services have been making with the — up to now unpaid — use of publishers’ products.”

The justice ministry has been asked to come up with a bill, which is being dubbed “Lex Google,” to be presented to parliament for a vote this summer.

The move is welcomed by the newspaper industry. “In the digital age, such a right is essential to protect the joint efforts of journalists and publishers,” the Federation of German Newspapers (BDZV) announced, adding that it was an “essential measure for the maintenance of an independent, privately financed news media.”

That, however, is not the view of many in the online community, who argue that newspaper and magazine publishers are demanding fees for content that they are themselves providing free to the public.

Furthermore, they argue, the newspapers are actually benefiting from being featured on services like Google News, since the majority of their traffic comes from such sites. “The publishers are already profiting from the search engines,” says Mario Rehse, copyright expert at BITKOM, Germany’s largest IT industry association. “They are availing of a free service and want to be paid for using it.”

He says the proposed law is effectively government intervention to bolster the traditional media companies. “An economic sector will be subsidised by law so that there will be a redistribution of economic earnings from the internet industry to the publishers.”

The media companies should work on making their businesses profitable instead of looking for copyright fees, he argues. “These publishers should concentrate on their own strengths and develop their own business models instead of trying to cash in on the success of other companies.”

“The question for newspaper publishers should be how to make their product so attractive that readers will pay money for it,” says Philipp Otto of IGEL, a group campaigning against the new law. “And that is something publishers haven’t managed. It is obviously possible to make money with the Internet, but there is a lack of good ideas.”

Rehse warns that imposing fees could simply prompt Google to pull its service out of Germany. Yet, even if it decides to reach into its very deep pockets and pay for the snippets, that is not an option available to other smaller sites.

The coalition has already stated that private users would not have to pay any fees, yet the boundary between public and private on the Internet is increasingly blurred. After all some bloggers could be regarded as commercial enterprises if they sell advertising.

“There is a danger of years of legal uncertainty, something you don’t need when the current copyright law is already complicated enough,” warns Otto of IGEL.

He says that forcing blogs and other sites to pay for linking to online press articles could have other far-reaching consequences. “There is a threat to freedom of information, because it would constrict free expression.”

Rehse agrees that this is also a danger, as the protection of the links and snippets could effectively mean news organizations would have ownership of actual information. “Whoever has the first report could have the monopoly over that report and then ask all the other media for a fee to use it.”

One small commercial site that could be affected by the proposed fees is Perlentaucher, a cultural information website that combines its own content with links to many other publications.

Perlentaucher’s co-founder Thierry Cherval told GlobalPost he thought the proposed legislation was “half-baked” and the result of intense lobbying from powerful media groups.

“The current government had already promised to introduce this legislation during the last election campaign, and now the next campaign is approaching and they are active again,” he said. “The politicians are not really interested in this law, but they are so scared of the press that they are giving in to the pressure.”

“I think Google and sites like Perlentaucher are of use to the media, yet these newspaper and magazine publishers are doing everything in their power to cement their positions and to keep the old power structures even in the digital age.”

Cherval says that he is convinced that the legislation will be overturned in the Constitutional Court, Germany’s highest court, on the basis that the right to information is more important than the newspaper publisher’s commercial interests.

Otto of IGEL hopes that it won’t even get that far. “I believe the opposition is growing day by day. And in the end it will be the politicians of the German Parliament who decide if this becomes law. And the doubts are growing there too.”

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