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Let’s uphold the neighbouring rights of the press

This is a fundamental struggle for the press: on Thursday 8 October, the French Court of Appeals is expected to rule on the validity of the emergency measures imposed by the Competition Authority forcing Google to apply the French law on neighbouring rights. If the Court of Appeal's judgment does not fall in their favour, every publisher and agency will have to bring individual proceedings. The law would not be implemented any time soon, while a year has already passed since it came into force. Other EU member states, which are following what is happening in France, will not be in a rush to implement an EU directive that already appears dead in the water. Google will then have plenty of time to impose its law in title-by-title negotiations, which would take place against the backdrop of a highly fragile media environment.

What is at stake? Publishers and agencies are trying to gain a share, however small, of the value created by the content they produce, which is broadcast by platforms for free as links, short summaries and images. The model pursued by platforms is to produce nothing and appropriate the bulk of the revenue -- they receive the overwhelming majority of the digital advertising generated by this content. With this model, the value is gained by those who simply relay the information: it is as if distributors took all the box office revenues and left only breadcrumbs for the film producers.

Neighbouring rights (or copyright law) is not a regulatory quirk: it has been tried and tested in the music and audiovisual industries to compensate performers when their work is redistributed. Google is opposed to the principle of neighbouring rights, as it believes it already does a great service to publishers by giving their content visibility. It is as if a radio station told the performers to whom it currently pays neighbouring rights: "We give you exposure by broadcasting you so we’re going to stop paying you...".

Yet what would the radio be with no performers? It's the same for platforms: what would they be without the news media? In Australia, there is a similar struggle underway, with platforms threatening to no longer reference media titles. But having no news would greatly damage their service: someone typing "Sydney" on Google would find mainly fixed, official content, coexisting alongside a tide of fake news that would fill the gap left for the already massive amount of disinformation circulating online.

If the Court of Appeal’s ruling falls in favour of publishers and agencies, the Competition Authority will supervise the negotiations to ensure they result in a clear and sustainable calculation method. It will also ensure that Google shares key information: it is abnormal for a data player like Google – which knows everything about everyone – not to share basic figures such as the advertising revenue made on a given territory, with identified stakeholders.

Is the timing a coincidence? Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, has proposed a billion dollars over three years to remunerate publishers who "create and organise high-quality content". This is at least some recognition of the fact that quality information has value. But this is in Google’s hands, as it will select the publishers of its choice and will have total control as it may very well not renew the scheme. This is yet another advancement in the process of making Google an alternative to news sites: with free information, selected and adapted for its use. Why would readers go to the effort of accessing publishers’ websites, an increasing number of which require a paid subscription?

A smart manoeuvre perhaps, but a fool's bargain. This is of great concern to news agencies, whose health is pegged to that of its customers, the media. The sad part of the story is that Google – like other platforms – needs a vibrant press, and neighbouring rights are the easiest way to reinforce it without detracting from its independence.

 

Fabrice Fries, CEO of AFP.