Is linking under attack in Europe?

by Wayne Beynon on August 12, 2014

Nicknamed the ‘Google Fee’, new legislation in Spain requires news aggregators to compensate publishers financially if they link to their content. Aggregators that fail to pay publishers can now be fined anywhere between €30,000 and €300,000.

Spanish websites can still provide links and hyperlinks to other sites, but they will have to pay for the right to include any photos or snippets of text from the sources in question. The law is the brainchild of media groups and is predictably more about money than anything else. The main target is Google News, which provides a photo and two or three lines of text from articles each time a user searches for something.

The law is almost a carbon-copy of a German law that came into effect last year – which was also designed to make Google News pay for the free links it provides. In that case, Google simply noted that the ‘News’ service is ad-free and therefore raises no direct revenue. It also said it would provide all publishers the ability to ‘opt-in’, and would not link to sites that didn’t. Unsurprisingly, all major German newspapers have opted-in, because of the loss of traffic they experienced by not being on Google News. Even though they vowed not to give up the fight, they have still not been paid anything by the American corporation.

The fact is major publishers need Google, and they are highly unlikely to shun the search engine even if they are not financially compensated. The losers of the law then are smaller news aggregators that publishers do not rely on for high traffic volume, but can now potentially sue.

There is also trepidation among social media users in the country. If the Spanish government is truly serious about cracking down on a major entity such as Google, what is to stop it fining normal internet users who post links in a Facebook status or a tweet?

And before Brits assume this is limited to the continent, there is reason to believe the practice could become EU law. In recent years, France and Belgium have taken similarly harsh stances on Google, and along with Spain and Germany, they represent most of the major players within the European political spectrum. The EU also has a history of standing up to Google on copyright issues. In May of this year for example, the European Commission famously ruled that “Google and other search engines must remove data from past results if requested to do so by a member of the public.” Dubbed the ‘right to be forgotten’ by many, the ruling was the conclusion of a five year case between Spanish blogger Mario Costeja González and Google.

As mentioned though, the fact remains that publishers need major search engines and the traffic their links generate. Spain and Brussels seem to be to determined to establish any way of fining Google over its use of content, but the situation may well play exactly as it has in Germany – rather uneventfully.

Wayne Beynon is a Media & IP lawyer at Cardiff and London based law firm, Capital Law

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