A “victory” for the Spanish government, a defeat for freedom of information

Spain’s newspapers have met with Google on several occasions recently to press their case for charging the search engine for providing links to their headlines via its Google News service. Nice work if you can get it: Google uses our content, therefore Google should pay, because they make money and we’re not capable of doing so. This argument fails to take into account that Google News is a free service without advertising, as well as sending the papers it provides links for with a fantastic source of traffic. No worry: Google has lots of money and should therefore pay.

Spain’s newspapers have the backing of a government obsessed with controlling the media and that sees the internet as a threat.

It soon set about trying to bring Google to heel, passing new laws without consulting Brussels, as well as conniving with the country’s principal newspapers along the lines of a banana republic: you change your tune (and in some cases your editors), and we’ll look after you. For decades, governments of both main parties have used institutional advertising as a way to buy the silence of the main newspapers.

Very much business as usual in a country where the important decisions are traditionally taken without public consultation and where small companies have always had a hard time of it, because of course it’s not just Google that will be affected by Spain’s reactionary internet policies: small aggregators and news sources will also suffer by having to pay for providing links to the big boys’ newspapers.

But the Spanish government has overplayed its hand, and Google has refused to budge, saying that not only will it not pay, but that it will pull its Google News service in Spain if necessary. Let’s be clear here: this isn’t about money, it’s about defending the nature of the internet, and the Spanish government has just discovered that the “easy money” it was going to use to buy off the main newspapers has just slipped beyond its reach.

The Spanish government isn’t concerned that a significant number of publications in the country opposed to its plans had garnered the support of international media experts, prestigious publications, and the Wikimedia Foundation, all of which agreed that the proposed levy on providing links was an attack on freedom of expression. Petitions, signatures? Who cares? The law was going to be passed: anything else would look like backing down.

The proposed law is now in the final stages of its passage through Congress, and Google is about to close Google News Spain. The newspapers are not going to get any money out of Google, and they will also lose a valuable source of traffic to their sites. What’s more, many other journalists, writers, and bloggers, like myself, will also stop providing links to the main Spanish newspapers. Individually, we may not matter much, but the sum of our parts will have an impact; it’s a way for ordinary people to express their feelings toward a newspaper industry that is still living in the last century.

For Spain this is yet another indication of the worrying erosion of democracy here under the present government: Spain is now one of the few countries in the world without Google News, and the only nation on the planet where it has had to close its operations due to government pressure. A country where the law is used for something as insane as not allowing news to be disseminated. Yes, that’s right: if I want to provide a link to say, El País, then I have to pay them. What kind of dinosaur mentality could dream up a law like that?

In the end, Google News’ director, Richard Gingras, and Google itself, have been forced to take the only step they could to avoid giving in to what is an egregious attack on freedom of speech. Payment was not the issue here, let me repeat: it was that by doing so Google would have legitimated a criminal act. So, congratulations to the Spanish newspaper industry and the Spanish government. Let’s hope that this is the last such victory they enjoy.

(En español, aquí)