Yet another letter I wrote to the Irish Times, which they struggled to decide whether to publish or not, and came down on the side of "caution".

I remain convinced that the continued claim that the large (unnecessarily, and likely underhandedly) successful new internet services owe money to the newspaper industry because they reach readers better is – and there's no better word for this, IMO – arse.

I include hyperlinks – the bedrock of the World Wide Web, and the feature of the web that the newspaper industry hates the most – in the text, but I didn't include them in the "letter" I sent to the IT. This is probably more because I hate to see blue, underlined text in printed material than the fact that the IT doesn't include hyperlinks to external resources in any of it's stories despite being one of the first newspapers in the world to have had a web presence.

Of course, as with all such things, I have made other minor edits to what I sent to the venerable newspaper of record for reasons of clarity and grammar.

Charging Google News for sending business to newspapers

A chara,

Imagine a TV show that gives to its viewers an overview of the upcoming movies in the local cinemas, offering brief snippets of those movies for its viewers to get a flavour of what they could see.

Imagine that TV show being broadcast on a TV station that is free to all with a TV.

Imagine, then, that this TV show is popular, and that it directly results in many people going to the cinema, people who would otherwise be unaware of those movies; of how entertaining they are, and who would spend money to watch those movies, to travel to those cinemas, and to buy drinks and snacks there; maybe, even, an annual ticket.

It's not terribly difficult to imagine this, as it has happened: I remember fondly watching Barry Norman's "Film…" in the 1990s, and enjoyed many movies in the cinema because of it.

Imagine then, how many new ways for people to watch movies come along, resulting in a reduction in money being spent in the cinemas, in the taxis and on the buses, at the tuck shop. Again, this is not hard to imagine, as it, too, has happened.

Imagine, now, the movie producers, the cinemas, the drinks and snacks outlets and the bus and taxi companies demanding that they all receive a payment from the producers of that TV show because of the snippets of the movies it features, arguing that viewers would otherwise go to the cinema but for those snippets.

That's just ridiculous, isn't it?

There is a growing campaign, however, to require the so-called big tech companies to pay for linking to stories on newspapers' web sites, and, according to a story I came upon on your web site, Leo Varadkar seems to have been attracted to its delectable shallowness. The argument is that, because these websites provide the headline, and maybe the first sentence or two from the news story, and perhaps a picture from the article, newspapers are struggling in the internet age.

The problem with this argument is that not only is it not backed up by the evidence, the evidence demonstrates quite the opposite.

Belgium gave it a go. In 2011, a court there ordered Google to stop linking to stories of Belgian newspapers. So it stopped. Days later, the newspapers were complaining about the reduction in traffic coming to their websites, because Google did exactly what they wanted and what they got the court to order.

Germany gave it a go. A law was passed there asserting that linking to other web sites (the very foundation, and the reason for the name, of the World Wide Web) required a copyright licence. Google, the main source of traffic to the news websites delisted those site to avoid accusation of copyright of infringement. Very shortly, Google was granted a free licence, due to the precipitous drop in traffic (and advertising revenue) because the visitors to their websites stopped coming; they were coming through Google.

Spain gave it a go. It passed a law to say that copyright was an inalienable right, meaning that free licences would not be legal, causing Google to promptly pull is news service out of Spain altogether. The result: a massive drop of traffic to all news outlets in Spain, with only the larger titles managing to survive. Unfortunately, other public-interest services, like Wikipedia, were badly damaged in Spain, because granting of free licences for creative works is now illegal there.

And now France is giving it a go, ordering Google to negotiate with the newspaper industry into an agreement where it will pay the newspapers for giving them customers. This suggests that France may be aware of the history. Australia is giving it a go, too, but dispensing with the pointless negotiation requirement.

Policy needs to be based on fact. Here are some facts that seem to be ignored:

  • Fact 1: Google News doesn't host advertising, and therefore doesn't generate revenue from making it easier for people to find the news they are looking
  • Fact 2: Google news will literally lose nothing from not hosting links to those news sites.
  • Fact 3: Google news sends business to newspapers, and this has been demonstrated over the last decade with the increased damaged caused to the news industry by more demanding laws.
  • Fact 4: Any news site that wants to do so can prohibit Google from sourcing stories from it by configuring their "robots.txt" file appropriately, a standard that Google has always respected.

Similarly, policy needs to be aware of its consequences. For example, what will happen if Google News isn't the reason for the market challenges that news outlets are experiencing? When Google shuts down its news service, will that be considered a win? By whom? Will local, small news outlets really benefit if news aggregators are declared illegal?

I appreciate that a news outlet such as yours is unlikely to publish a letter that criticises the basis of a campaign its industry believes to offer a life-line. I also appreciate that this is a long letter by your standards. However, it is critical to point out how Leo Varadkar is late to the party with this one, and that he significantly risks embarrassing the country for no benefit in pushing a policy that was shown nearly 10 years ago to be unworkable.

Is mise, etc.

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