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Europe has struggled to produce a regular stream of challengers for America’s technology giants. That has not, however, guaranteed Microsoft, Apple and Google an easy ride across the Atlantic. Instead, a persistent threat has come from legal and regulatory challenges.

Take Google. The search company faces legal challenges from Agence France-Presse and some Belgian newspapers for using their content on Google News. The immediate threat to Google’s overall business is tiny, not least because Google News does not yet produce advertising revenue.

The cases do, however, raise important longer-term questions. For news providers, Google is like an addictive drug. It offers immediate highs from the internet traffic it generates, while posing longer-term health risks. By aggregating headlines and story snippets, Google gets valuable content free. Reading Google News is enough for some people, superficially, to feel up with events. Google and others allow those who want to dig deeper to cherry-pick from different sources.

The news industry is unlikely to gang up on Google and withhold content collectively. After all, every publication that asks to be removed from Google’s service effectively means more internet traffic for those that remain.

But Associated Press already has a deal where Google will pay for some content. If current legal cases were to create a strong precedent – say, narrowing the scope of “fair use” of internet content – others would no doubt try using this as leverage to seek payment.

After all, if there were a ruling that Google had infringed copyright and owed monetary damages, it would be open to further potential lawsuits. That might even force Google to shift to clearer “opt in” rules for those wanting their content showcased -– rather than the current “opt out” system for those who do not. For a company trying to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible”, that would make life hugely more complicated.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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