Internet search giant Google is threatening to exclude French media sites from returned search results if France goes ahead with a proposed law which would force search engines to pay for content.
In a letter sent by Google to a number of French government ministries, a copy of which was obtained by Agence France Presse, Google said it "could not accept" moves to have search engines pay if they referenced certain websites in search results returned. Google threatened that the company “as a consequence would be required to no longer reference French sites," reports France 24. Google has since published the letter, along with a summary of Google's position concerning the French copyright proposals on the company's Europe Blog.
Google said such a law, which meant the search would have to make payments to media sites for displaying links to their content, would threaten Google’s very existence.
French media organisations, the Association de la Presse d'Information Politique et Générale (IPG) and the Syndicat de la Presse Quotidienne Nationale have proposed to the French government that search engines may index their content without hindrance, as long as they pay “a fair remuneration” for doing so. Under proposals currently being considered in French parliamentary committee, office-holders of any search engine company found to be indexing news without payment could be fined up to €300,000 and face three years in jail, reports French based English language newspaper, The Connexion.
Last September, concerned at falling revenues, French newspaper publishers asked the French government to bring forward legislation which would compel internet search engines such as Bing and Yahoo, but principally Google, to pay the publishers of the source material each time a user read an article by clicking through to media websites after conducting an internet search, reports The Daily Telegraph.
The new law demanded by French media publishers would be similar to German legislation informally known as "Lex Google", which would introduce "droits voisins" as they are known in France, or related rights, as an extension of internet copyright. German ministers approved such a law in principle last August but it has still to gain the German parliament's approval.
In 2011, Belgium passed similar ‘click through’ legislation. This resulted in Google excluding popular Belgian newspaper titles like Le Soir and La Libre Belgique from Google search results.
Google’s letter to French ministers also contained something of a veiled threat mentioning that Google "redirects four billion 'clicks' per month towards the Internet pages" of French media.
French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti, according to BBC News, is reported to be in favour of the idea. Appearing before a French parliamentary commission she said it was "a tool that it seems important to me to develop". Reacting to Google's letter to ministers, she is also quoted by Le Point as saying, "I'm a little surprised by the tone of this correspondence, which is akin to a threat. You don't negotiate with a democratically elected government by issuing threats."
French media publishers argue that by indexing their content, Google receives a high volume of advertising revenue flowing from user searches for news contained on media websites. As the internet has become the favoured medium for reading news, printed newspapers, both in France and elsewhere, have seen their income reduced as it becomes more difficult to maintain advertising rates and attract new advertisers with more and more companies gradually turning to the web to publicise their products. Traditional newspapers who have attempted to move over to online editions have also discovered that web-users are reluctant to pay for online content behind so-called ‘paywalls’ when so much content is free on the Internet.
This is not the first time France has sought to gain a slice of the internet advertising action. The previous government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy had contemplated introducing an internet advertising revenue tax which would have forced all businesses, big and small, to pay a levy on website advertising. That proposal was quietly shelved since French business organisations successfully argued that it would hurt smaller French based web businesses rather than internet giants.
Quoted on BBC News, Adrian Drury, head of Consumer IT with research firm Ovum, said, "France has a track record of enacting laws to protect its local media interest that seem out of step with the conventional wisdom in other markets. The question is whether by returning a search result Google is infringing the copyright of a site. The publishers will continue to contest this, but the general consensus is that it is not.”
Google France has said earlier that it believed a law imposing a levy on search results returned "would be harmful to the Internet, Internet users and news websites that benefit from substantial traffic" sent to them by Google's search engine.
In their latest missive to French ministers, Google say any proposed tax "would result in limiting access to information by reducing the number of French sites referenced on the Internet." Google also say the tax would "stifle innovation" and could also "be seen as being indirectly affecting freedom of expression."
According to Le Point, Google also considers the proposed levy would be "detrimental to the promotion of the French language" and "significantly reduce the ranking of French sites, the main beneficiaries being Anglo-Saxon (English language) websites, which would obviously not be subject to such a constraint," recalling that "on the Internet, to not be referenced is to be off the radar."