December 17, 2012 2:38 pm

Gloves come off in Google v Germany

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Germany Google©EPA

Google and German newspaper publishers are poised to trade blows at a parliamentary hearing at the end of January over plans to allow Germany’s print media to charge internet search engines for displaying links to newspaper articles.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Free Democrat junior partners want to force online news aggregators like Google to ask permission to publish links to and excerpts of newspapers’ web offerings – an extension of copyright that many lawmakers hope will allow publishers to charge licence fees of Google and its rivals.

The proposal is intended to allow newspapers better to recoup some of the revenue they have lost as advertisers and readers migrate to the web.

The legislative push is increasingly also attracting the notice of newspaper owners and politicians in other European countries such as France and Italy.

In Germany, the legal committee of the Bundestag has scheduled a public hearing for January 30, suggesting the ruling coalition’s hope of passing its so-called ancillary copyright bill by the summer remain on track.

So worried is Google about the bill before the Bundestag that it has launched a campaign warning it could end easy access to information on the web and calling for Google users to phone or email their local member of parliament in protest.

The company hopes that Germans opposed to legislation will draw strength from an agreement between Google and French-language publishers in Belgium last week. The publishers association Copiepresse withdrew a six-year legal campaign which accused Google’s news service of breaching newspapers’ copyright in return for an initiative to push more Google users on to their websites.

With newspapers across Europe struggling to make money, publisher groups in France, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland have joined their German peers to call for “regulation of the digital economy” and “rebalancing the economy of the web”.

In a statement published recently, France’s Association de la Presse IPG, the Federazione Italiana Editori Giornali (Fieg), Médias Suisses, and the Associação Portuguesa de Imprensa joined German groupings BDVZ and VDZ in a pledge to pursue ancillary copyright at national level and to co-ordinate internationally.

In France, publishers appear to be making progress. In an October meeting with Eric Schmidt, Google chairman, President François Hollande threatened to draft legislation forcing Google to pay a share of its revenues derived from links to articles if it did not reach a deal to do so with French publishers by year’s end.

The government appointed a mediator earlier this month in a bid to reach an agreement between the two sides. However, the French president warned: “If it is necessary a law will be introduced on this issue, following the German example.”

In Italy, publishers have identified an initiative by Alessio Butti, a senator from Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, as the foundation for a similar legislative push. The move is said to have cross party support – although there is no clear timetable for legislation, especially now the country faces a national election early in 2013.

But Fieg, which reckons about 30 per cent of traffic on search engines is related to editorial products, remains committed to the project. “Above all it’s a matter of protecting a product. If [search engines] are making business from news then it is correct for them to recognise so,” Fabrizio Carotti, director-general, told the FT.

Having said in 2010 that copyright law did not need overhauling, even the Swiss government has now softened its stance, with the Ministry of Justice convening a working group to look into the issue. But Daniel Hammer, secretary-general of Médias Suisses, warned it would take several years for any changes to be adopted.

In Germany, meanwhile, legislative aides are confident about a speedy passage for ancillary copyright in the Bundestag, even though some members of the ruling parties and most opposition Social Democrats and Greens oppose the changes.

The two latter parties hold sway in the upper house, the Bundesrat, which could delay final approval of the bill from April into May, but it cannot veto a bill which affects only the federal government and not the states. “If anything,” one aide said, “Google’s campaign has emboldened the coalition parties to see this through.”

Google says the campaign “Protect your web – find what you’re looking for” is a success. A spokesman told the FT some 1.5m people had visited the site since it went live late October, with 60,000 users signing up to protest against the bill.

But the company’s attempt to incite a grass-roots protest against the bill by allowing users to search for the – publicly available – email address and phone numbers of their MP has angered lawmakers and even members of the Merkel government.

Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger expressed shock at how the company was trying to influence public opinion. “There are other search engines than Google,” she said. Philipp Rösler, economy minister, warned Google “to watch for the difference between protecting one’s interests and misleading the public”.

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