Their battle reached a crescendo of absurdity as (1) a Leistungsschutzrecht was written to forbid Google et al from quoting snippets of publishers’ content; (2) the legislation was amended to allow snippets; (3) publishers sued Google anyway for using snippets, demanding 11 percent of Google's related revenue; (4) Google said it would stop using snippets from the litigious publishers; (5) those publishers accused Google of blackmailing them for taking down the snippets the publishers were themselves using to blackmail Google; (6) government officials laughed the publishers out of the cartel office; (7) most of the publishers capitulated because they need traffic from Google; (8) Springer pulled permission to publish snippets from Die Welt and three minor sites but not from its superbrand, Bild; and (9) Springer itself capitulated after confessing it lost too much traffic from Google and arguing this demonstrated Google’s crushing market power. The publishers have succeeded in humiliating themselves, their industry, and their nation.
German publishers have decided to compete not in the marketplace but in their own pages and in the Bundestag. They are using their power to influence the legislature to disadvantage their competitor and to force Google into negotiating some unspecified concessions. The effort brings unintended consequences. See how the war against Google has morphed into a war against the link in Spain, where publishers and government are threatening to tax the link to support failing legacy media companies. The link is the essential invention by Sir Tim Berners-Lee that underpins the entire World Wide Web. To tax the link is to kill the web.
Springer has also
rallied publishers across Europe — plus News
— to successfully browbeat the EU into rejecting its own antitrust
settlement with Google. In this process, Springer’s Döpfner penned a hyperbolic
screed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung accusing Google of a Bible’s worth
of sins. He likened Google to the Mafia, Big Brother, and a Wagnerian dragon.
He accused Google cofounder Larry Page of wanting to establish his own island
nation, a personal technocracy. He claimed to be scared of Google.
This week, the Financial Times reports, the European Parliament is set to vote on a resolution calling for the breakup of Google. German MEP Andreas Schwab is a law-firm colleague of one of the architects of the Leistungsschutzrecht, Ole Jani. In a rare moment of political dissent from Germany’s Googlephobia, Kurt Lauk, president of the CDU Economics Council, called the move a "loser debate" and cautioned in the Handelsblatt: "We have the chance to participate in a 20-trillion market, if we do not tend to treat the internet and the digital revolution as a threat." Even Günther Oettinger, European commissioner for the digital economy, mocked the idea of a Google breakup as a move that a planned economy would take, "not a market economy".
Springer and various associations of publishers organized for this purpose have printed ads and made videos lobbying the EU, arguing that Google takes unfair advantage of its market strength. The publishers are promulgating a new standard, holding that it is not fair for Google to point to its own services and advertisers. But the publishers themselves could not live up to this standard. In their video attacking Google, the publishers suggest that you search for "shoes" on Google and you will find Google’s advertisers atop the page. You will then find everything else about shoes underneath. Go to Springer’s Bild.de, click on the "Schuhe" link atop its page, and you will find Bild’s advertisers — and nothing else. Should Der Spiegel be required to promote Focus? Wouldn’t that be fair?
It’s ironic that such bastions of economic and political conservatism as Springer and News Corp. now run to hide behind government’s skirts. Publishers certainly have Germany’s politicians marching to their drumbeat. German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has called for Google to be broken up. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has called for Google to reveal its algorithm — an absurd and meaningless demand that would serve only the spammers. At this year’s German newspaper conference, Chancellor Merkel dutifully appeared to pay homage and lament her hosts’ shrinking fortunes and newsrooms. SPD MP Thomas Opperman curried favor there by vowing to limit Google’s market power.
Google is not the only target of the old institutions’ fear and wrath. In his FAZ letter, Döpfner likened Facebook to the Stasi. French taxi drivers led strikes against Uber. Germany banned Uber until a court overturned that action. Outgoing EC Vice President Neelie Kroes wisely cautioned that these are not the best ways to grapple with progress. "The fact is that digital technology is changing many aspects of our lives," she said. "We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence."
The third force against the net and progress is cultural, a moral panic that is often abetted and amplified by publishers and politicians. I call it technopanic.
Remember the reaction to Google Street View when it entered Germany. Politicians goaded almost 250,000 citizens to demand that Google blur their buildings in the service, inspiring the invention of a new word — the Verpixelungsrecht, or right to be pixelated — and leading my waggish German friends on Twitter to dub their land "Blurmany". Google gave up extending Street View in Germany and no longer exercises its right to take pictures of public views from public places. If there is ever a presumption of privacy in public, I fear how that precedent could be used to restrict the right of citizens to record and report what they witness in public. I worry how it could be used to hamper journalism.
A far worse impingement of free speech comes with the right to be forgotten, another newly invented principle that has been espoused by European politicians and brought to reality by a European court. The decision tramples on others’ right to remember. As news organizations are all too quickly learning when links to their work disappear, the right to be forgotten also impinges on the right to free speech and a free press. Shouldn’t Europe of any place on earth be wary of attempts to rewrite history, to control knowledge, to allow powerful institutions — whether governments or corporations — to decree what must not be known? Shouldn’t the real lesson of our public embarrassments online be that we all make mistakes and we need to learn to be more tolerant of others?