The Media Today

Is Google serious about pulling Google News out of Europe?

January 24, 2019

The European Union continues to debate proposals for toughening up copyright laws, including a rule that would require digital aggregators such as Google News to pay for publishing short excerpts from articles, even if they link to them. That has led to some saber-rattling from Google: on Tuesday, Jennifer Bernal, Google’s public policy manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told Bloomberg that if the new EU rules go ahead, the company might have to remove Google News from the continent completely. But would the search giant really block all of Europe from using its news service over a copyright battle? Or are the threats a negotiating tactic, designed to put pressure on publishers and legislators and get them to water down their proposed laws? There’s evidence to support both scenarios.

For those who argue that the tech giant would never deprive an entire region of access to its news service, there is a compelling case to the contrary: when Spain implemented a similar “link tax” or “snippet tax” (as some like to call it) in 2014, Google blocked access to Google News for the entire country, and it remains blocked. Other countries, including Belgium and France, proposed similar taxes for excerpts several years ago, but Google ultimately settled these disputes by setting up “innovation funds” designed to help publishers improve their use of the internet. These funds were the beginning of what became the Google News Initiative, a $300-million commitment the company says is aimed at making media companies more digitally successful (and getting them to use more Google products).

Tuesday’s comments from Jennifer Bernal are not the first time the idea of Google News leaving Europe has been mooted, though: Richard Gingras, who is vice president of news for Google, raised the possibility of leaving Europe last fall, when the first proposals for the EU’s new regulations started to circulate. While he didn’t rule out removing Google News from Europe if the laws went ahead without modifications, he said the company wanted to work with European legislators and publishers to reach a solution. That made the threat of leaving sound a lot more like a negotiating tactic than a hard-and-fast decision.

At the moment, the proposed “link tax” law (formally known as Article 11) is tied up in debates within the EU, perhaps in part because of Google’s threat, but also because various member countries can’t seem to agree on how to implement it. Regardless of the wording, it seems clear that the proposed legislation would make life difficult for Google. But would it be difficult enough that the search company might pull out of Europe? That would be a significant gesture of defiance towards the EU, and Google is already on thin ice as it is. For example, the company has been criticized for its lackluster approach to the new General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR (it was just fined $57 million by French regulators for breaching the rules). Admittedly, that’s a paltry amount for Google, whose parent company Alphabet has more than $100 billion in annual revenue, but taking its Google News toys and going home isn’t likely to mend any fences with European regulators.

And if Google does leave Europe, what happens to EU publishers who rely on Web traffic that comes through the service? When German publisher Axel Springer removed all of its content from Google News in 2014 to protest what it saw as the company’s theft of its content, the newspaper chain said its traffic dropped by more than 40 percent, and it quickly rejoined. Most estimates of the loss to Spanish publishers are somewhere in the 20-percent range, depending on the size of the outlet. But some argue the damage to news media from a Google News departure might not be that severe: for example, a Danish publisher noted on Twitter that the news service has never been available in Denmark and that media outlets in that country are better off as a result (although other media industry insiders questioned drawing too many conclusions from that example).

Here’s more on Google and the EU’s copyright initiatives:

  • High stakes: Josh Benton of Harvard’s Nieman Lab has a good overview of what is at stake for publishers who are pushing the EU link tax, and what the likely outcome would be if Google does pull out of the continent. The stakes are even higher now, Benton argues, because search is so important to traffic on mobile devices.
  • The aftermath: A study published last year by researchers at Stanford and the University of Michigan looked at what happened to news consumption in Spain after Google News shut down there, and found that the loss of the service mostly affected traffic to smaller news publishers, while larger ones remained unaffected.
  • Screenshots: In response to the proposed Article 11, Google said it has been doing tests of what a version of Google News that complied with the law would look like, and it gave a news site screenshots of the result: A page that looks as though it has failed to load, with just hyperlinks and large white spaces where the content should be.
  • A friend in need: Some have said that Google takes its opposition to the EU’s copyright plans too far, by encouraging publishers who are partners in its Google News Initiative, including some who get funding from the company, to lobby the European Union to vote against the new rules.
  • A comeback? Of course, even if Google decides to withdraw from Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t come back at some point if there’s a compelling business case. The company pulled its search product out of China to protest hacking and surveillance, but it is said to be looking for a way to get back in.
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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.