After spending a little time analyzing the fallout and talking with some of those involved, I am beginning to form a clear idea of what lies behind the Spanish government’s draft law on intellectual property, which has been dubbed the Google tax, but perhaps would be better called the AEDE’s tax (the AEDE is Spain’s association of daily newspaper owners).
What we have here goes way beyond simply charging aggregators or amending the law: this is nothing less than a government taking control of a country’s media, a move more in keeping with the way a banana republic works than a European parliamentary democracy.
To put this in perspective: here in Spain we have an unpopular, right-wing government that has imposed swingeing public spending cuts and raised taxes obsessed with news coverage of its policies, looking ahead to a series of polls that culminate in a general election sometime next year, and that has made a power play using the power it wields in the form of the institutional advertising it can dole out to bring into line newspapers it considers hostile.
Two of the country’s leading quality dailies have recently appointed new editors: the Barcelona-based La Vanguardia (this at a time when the government has come under fire from the right wing for its handling of nationalist parties in Catalonia for an independence referendum), and El Mundo, traditionally a paper of the right, but critical of the governing Popular Party (PP). El País, traditionally a supporter of the center-left PSOE, or Socialist Party, is also set to replace its editor. In reality, these changes were all planned even before the PP won the 2011 general elections.
The draft law, based on Germany’s, obliges Google and other news aggregators to pay for news items they provide links to, is simply another move in strengthening the government’s hold on the media by taking further control over the internet.
This new law is states that it is defending the “inalienable rights” of Spanish newspapers over their content. This, despite calls from writers like myself, and many others, for the application of Creative Commons principles in Spain, something that would explicitly permit the reproduction of all content, provided that they were properly attributed. How can a government steamroll over my wishes and “oblige” others to pay for anything I produce, payment for which is collected by a performing rights society and then shared out as it sees fit?
How could such a conspiracy possibly be justified? The only way is by making sure that this money, which is little more than highway robbery, gets to the people the government wants it to. While in Germany, it was sufficient simply to allow writers or publications to opt out of Google News (and a vast majority of publications decided to opt in), here in Spain, the new law does not provide for that option. Why? “inalienable rights”. This is a move of astonishing, and cold-blooded gall.
How to explain a law that talks in terms of the use of “non-significant fragments” of content as the defining principle, rather than the traditional principle of “significant fragments”? Based on Germany’s experience, and to avoid the problems the changes to copyright laws there brought about, the simplest solution is simply that nobody pays anybody else anything. The goal here is not defend Google or other news aggregators, but simply to keep the internet open.
If Spain allows the AEDE to charge aggregators for providing links to the content produced by its members, then we will have moved toward a situation where part of the net cannot be quoted or linked to without payment. This is the thin end of the wedge. Providing links or short fragments of information produced by others is an essential aspect of the online freedom all of us have traditionally enjoyed on the web. Under the government’s proposals, we would find ourselves in a fuzzy environment overseen by a non-elected and exclusive rights management society able to share out payments as it thought fit. In Spain, this societies are extremely polemic, since one of them, the music-related SGAE, was a few years ago deeply embroiled in a corruption scandal.
Furthermore, the Spanish government’s draft law focuses on links, running completely counter to a ruling by the EU that states clearly that links to a work that is widely available on other areas of the internet cannot be considered a crime.
News aggregators, of which there are many more on the web than Google News, are not stealing anybody’s content. Any writer or publication that does not want to have links to its work can simply opt out. What’s more, most of these aggregators do not host advertising and do not generate income, and if they do, they are exiguous, and certainly no justification for laws aimed at fleecing them for providing a valuable service to users of the internet, i.e. you and me.
In the case of Spain, if this law goes ahead (and the government here has an absolute majority in parliament, and the opposition has failed to speak out against it) the only good thing to be said is that news hounds will be spared the biased information produced by AEDE members. It should be noted that the president of the AEDE, Luis Enríquez, is a noted right-winger who makes many members of our current administration appear namby pamby liberals, and who was present at the press conference to announce the proposed change to Spain’s copyright laws.
In short, if this law is passed by parliament, as it surely will be (Guess what? The PP controls Spain’s upper house too), we will have a country where the main newspapers in cahoots with the government, grateful to an administration that provides it with bountiful advertising, and now, income from a copyright tax. Spain’s media might be critical of countries like Venezuela (still in the hands of Hugo Chávez’s appointed successor Nicolás Maduro), but it is more than happy to play ball with the government when it suits its interests.
(En español, aquí)