Something really scary is going on in Germany

Posted by on December 6, 2012

It involves the Internet, the major publishers in the country and politicians.

What happened?

Major German publishers with Axel Springer AG as the leader of the gang have for years demanded a law that would force all commercial web services such as search engines or aggregators like the German-Techmeme equivalent Rivva to pay a license fee for automatically processing and displaying headlines or snippets.

It would be a highly obsolete, Internet-hostile law that nobody benefits from – not even the publishers – because apart from Google, none of the smaller startups and aggregators would be able to pay the fee, hence they’d have to close down or move abroad. But the law would create huge uncertainty among everybody who is publishing content on the web and who refers to the publishers’ content, even if its only in 140 characters. It would increase bureaucracy and kill innovation. It’s an evil law which only can be created by people who are incapable of looking forward.

Unfortunately, most German politicians are blindly following the publishers’ lobbyists, which is why the law proposal, called “Leistungsschutzrecht” (hashtag #lsr), is currently being discussed in the German Parliament. A decision won’t made before early 2013, but it’s hard to say how the outcome will be.

But that’s not the scary part of the whole story. Or yes, it is, but there is an even scarier one:

Because usually, when politicians try to create an obviously harmful law, the media as the fourth power in a democracy would make sure that the public is informed about what’s going on, creating pressure so that the politicians are forced to modify the law proposal or to cancel it.

But this is not happening. Since it’s the publishers who want that law, they do everything they can to NOT make the law makers realize how stupid that kind of law would be. Instead, they use their own reach to pump out articles defending the law on an almost daily basis. It’s lobbying at its worst under the disguise of objective journalism. Not to speak about the lobbying which likely takes place behind closed curtains. They accuse Google, which is the biggest company that opposes the law (for obvious reasons) of stealing their content (yeah, presenting a headline and the first two sentences of an article with the purpose of sending free traffic is stealing, right. And then there is the robots.txt of course…), compare it to the Taliban and claim that journalists writing for their newspapers have equally highlighted the pros and cons of the law. It’s a blatant lie. It’s just not true and it’s shocking to see formerly respected people lying openly like that, without any shame.

Google answered to the whole drama with a huge campaign with ads in major German newspapers (oh the irony) and a link on encouraging people to “defend their Internet”. The publishers and some political leaders reacted with outrage, condemning this “unparalleled lobbyism”. Them accusing others of lobbyism! Yeah, it doesn’t even sound like reality, but it is. A sad reality.

So the scary thing is that in a situation when the public really needs and independent mainstream media, there is none, because the mainstream media wants the law.

It actually makes you feel pretty helpless and frustrated to see how far the publishers are willing to go to push through a law that they won’t really win anything with, but which creates collateral damage for all. It’s not a good feeling and it only emphasizes that old media is hard to take seriously these days. Never mind how important they say they are for democracy.

This article has 64 comments

  1. Martin Schröder Reply

    What’s wrong with newspapers being paid for the content that they produce? No one has to use their headlines if they don’t want to pay for it. I see nothing wrong with such a proposal. In fact, I think it is time that high-quality journalism (Springer excluded) is remunerated accordingly and that people get used to the fact that high-quality information needs a high-quality price. If the “Leistungsschutzrecht” promotes this, then it is a great idea, not an “an evil law which only can be created by people who are incapable of looking forward.”

    1. Martin Weigert Reply

      I fully agree with your main statement that no one should be forced to have its headlines or snippets systematically being used by other sites commercially, if they don’t want to pay for it.

      But: there is no need for a law . This can be done with the robots.txt in a second. You run a site which you want to exclude from Google and Google News? Go for it with the robots.txt. I don’t see a reason why there should be a law that creates uncertainty for the majority of people publishing on the web (having one banner to pay your server bills could already make you become “commercial”), if the solution for the problem is already there.

      The reality is that the publishers don’t want to be excluded from the aggregators. They want both: getting traffic from the aggregators, and getting paid for it. It’s like asking the owner of the newspaper shop to pay a fee so that he is allowed to sell the newspapers. With this in mind, I don’t find a better word to describe the law than “evil”.

      1. Carlos Reply

        There is nothing evil about this, it is called making a deal. Publishers want to charge because they know that Google is making a profit on that content, and the newspapers themselves have no leverage. Google of course believes that anything that is available in the Web is their property, so there is no recourse other than asking for a law to allow this kind of deal to happen.

        1. Martin Weigert Reply

          Google News has no ads. No profit for Google. Robots.txt solves the problem of Google thinking the web is their property.

          1. Lars

            Well, robots.txt only works as long as the crawler chooses to respect it. Aggregators crawling the web can simply ignore robots.txt altogether if they want.

          2. Martin Weigert

            But Google and all the major search engines do. So that’s a pretty weak argument.

          3. Charanjit Singh

            No ads do not mean no profit. Google tracks users based on what news/other media they visit and target ads elsewhere. Information is most valuable asset in todays world, and google gets lots and lots of it with its tracking and stuff.

          4. Martin Weigert

            Fair point. But it is indirect monetization at best. Personally, that’s doesn’t justify the claim Google makes money with other people content. It’s just too far fetched, considering what Google mainly does: Sending traffic to other people’s websites.

          5. Sebastian

            The LSR is by no means limited to snippets and teasers but also covers head-lines and link-titles. Its not (only) about google news but also eg google search.

            If you search for “LSR” on google search and one of the returned results points to an article from that media google needa to pay. Its not relevant if that result is actually any useful for your search. Its enough that there is a link with a title.

            Now comes the boomer. Google could just not list such expensive links in there results. Right? Would only be fair…

            BUT google is forced too cause of its quasi monopol in the search-market. They are prohibited to exclude such links. Yes, that is with law that already applies.

            So, summary is 1) google needs to list that links and 2) they need to pay for it (even when no snippet/teaser of the linked article is displayed).

            This, the LSR in combination with the quasi search-monopol, is a law especially tailored for google. Others can play save and remove the links, google cannot. Its a google tax law that is pushed here.

            This, such a company tailored tax, is illegal in germany. But who cares if its for profit, right?

        2. Craig Reply

          “Making a deal” would be some kind mutual trade that does not involve the government. But publishers are pushing for a *law* – that is, government enforcement. That’s not a deal, that’s a use of force.

          “Trade” necessarily excludes government, because the inclusion of government mandates force, and force and trade are mutually exclusive.

          If Google thought that “anything availble on the web is their property,” they wouldn’t have to actually link to the full content. They’d just steal the articles wholesale and put ads on them. They don’t.

          Being able to find news via search results is Good for Google, it’s good for publishers, and it’s good for users. There is no way it is bad for any of them. This law reverses that and makes it worse for everyone. As a user, I can’t find news. As a search engine, Google can’t provide it. And as a publisher, various institutions will find themselves with generally less traffic.

          Publishers are getting greedy. They think this will result in them making more money by having a competitor forced to pay it by threat of legal action. The result instead will be damage to themselves.

        3. Nick Bauman Reply

          Woah, woah, woah: a law that proscribes payment for anyone to be allowed to present hyperlinks to any other content is incredibly damaging to the fabric of the Interent as whole, fullstop. This is an attempt to turn the entire internet into a million confederacies of walled-off AOLs. It must be opposed at all costs.

      2. Jess Reply

        Exactly this. You can’t have it both ways.

        Want traffic from search engines or not? Every website owner has the choice.

        While I appreciate the difficult position newspapers are in, most run an unsustainable business online and off.

        Laws that put uncertainty on all internet users in order to briefly delay the inevitable, do more harm than good to users, entrepreneurs and future publishers.

    2. Anonyville Reply

      You will sign your death warrant as we are not willing to pay your price. Over bloated pricing is collapsing every industry in the world today. Go ahead and sign your death knell. However, don’t say you weren’t warned when your greed slaps you in the face and you crash and burn in flames.

    3. _Flin_ Reply

      There is nothing wrong with newspapers getting paid for their content.

      If they want to get paid for it, they should stop giving it away for free. But giving it away and then afterwards demanding pay is ridiculous.

    4. Barry Kelly Reply

      If newspapers want to be paid for the content they produce, they should sell it, rather than giving it away for free.

      But newspapers have never been in the business of selling content. They sell audiences to advertisers.

      What this law appears to be doing is mandating that newspapers which give their product away for free, still get paid with the force of state violence. So the product is “free”, provided you don’t get dragged to court and forced to pay up or be fined / go to jail. Not really free at all then; nor is it a for-pay model.

    5. Jason Reply

      Google will quite simply remove these newspapers from their index rather than paying. Something the newspapers could have done at any time with robots.txt. The newspapers will then lose 75% of their traffic and come crawling back.

      1. Sebastian Reply

        No, google cannot just remove the links since that would be abuse of there quasi-monopol market power. Remember that ALL the local press is working together therr rather visible at the media coverage of the case. Its google vs german press. If google would just exclude tge german press from its search-results hell breaks and anti-monopoly forces would push google hard for that. Google only can either abort or accept whatever price the german press demands and pay to stay into the game.

        That all the other search-engines, services, commercial blogs, news-portals, etc. are hit too by that is collateral damage the local press is fine to accept for the additional LSR tax-profit that comes in.

    6. Thomas B. Reply

      > What’s wrong with newspapers being paid for the content that they produce?

      This doesn’t get newspapers any extra revenue, it just makes their content unrecoverable, killing off their readership.

      But whatever, be careful what you wish for, let them shoot themselves in the foot if they want.

      1. Thomas B. Reply

        Unrecoverable should be “undiscoverable”… I was a little hasty with the spell check.

      2. Dave F Reply

        My thoughts exactly. Let it play out. Either the publishers lose all their traffic and come crawling back with hat in hand, or they fold and nobody mourns their passing …

        … OR maybe their onto something that we haven’t thought of — a new paradigm about content on the web. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to let the law proceed.

        1. Oliver Reply

          You still don’t get it: The publishers don’t want to put up paywalls, otherwise they would loose their audience.

          They want the traffic from Google and they want to get paid by Google. Google is not allowed -by law- to take them out of their search results. Now they want a law that forces Google to pay them.

    7. Bob Reply

      I’m here by copyrighting

      … “your case seems strong because of the Leistungsschutzrecht” …

      … “yes, you can sue because of Leistungsschutzrecht” ….

      I’ll be happy to split my licensing fees with anyone that will help me sue any off the lawyers that move forward with cases on this!!!!

    8. shawn Reply

      Google does not need to link to their content. They will simply edit them out, or include a disclaimer as a placeholder in the search index. It goes both ways. This will simply drive more traffic to independents and bloggers. Your view is shortsighted at best.

  2. Wam Reply

    There was the exact same move a few months ago in France, where publishers wanted a “google law” with a tax just for merely indexing headlines. Then, they changed it to a tax on clicks.

    Google fought a bit, then said that fine, it would just remove said newspapers from its indices. Newspapers realized that fighting the company that brings you 75% of your visitors is a bad idea. Haven’t heard of the law since.

  3. bb Reply

    Even though I live in Germany, I’m not really informed on the subject. What is there that’d make the effects of that law anything else but:
    Google only showing what they are allowed to show for free, those publishers gaining immense momentum and eventually zero publishers asking a fee for aggregation.

  4. Joe Reply

    The problem is that both sides are correct.

    Someone has to report the news, and that costs money. Google news does cut into those already small margins, as does craigslist.

    Aggregating the news also costs money, and is essentially done at a loss. If Google has to pay, they won’t, and large chunks of the internet will go unindexed. That means Google loses value (it’s less useful) and the publishers lose value (they get fewer hits).

    Long term, either a new business model will support the news providers, or there will be fewer news providers. It’s a shame Flattr did not take off.

    1. Anonymous Reply

      No, what is happening to news is the same as is happening to album sales. Instead of people having to buy an entire album, they can now buy just the one track they like rather than the entire album. What all content creators are seeing is that revenue is dropping because they can no longer bundle and sell the poor content at the same price as the good content. Therefore, profit margins are getting squeezed. Economically, there is no undoing this situation for them.

    2. Joscha Reply

      It is not Google News that cuts into publisher’s margins. It is the abundance of billboard space of the internet (and a lot of it controlled by Google’s Adsense) that is cutting into advertising revenues of newspapers. Without advertising, publishing has no business case.

      Today, revenues from physical media sales are stagnant or shrinking, and the ad market gets spread thinly but efficiently over the vastness of the internet’s special interest websites, blogs and whatnot. The LSR is in fact an attempt by old businesses to make new businesses pay them for the customers they lost to them.

      Yes, news are important, and maybe there is no proper business case to be made out of them any more. Perhaps news do not need to be printed on paper any more. Perhaps we need state subsidies for independent news services. But in Germany, we already have these! Every household has to pay a fee to support the public media organizations. The news will go on, even if many publishers will die.

    3. Sebastian Reply

      Free your mind from google news and think of google search. Thats the battle field where the money is and LSR applies there too.

      Google search does offer a service. It indexes the internet and makes it searchable. That what most of us use google for. That is where there profit comes from.

      Think that way: in future google needs to pay cause search-results have a link to a LSR covered website. But a non-commercial service (like eg wikipedia) does not. Google can link to wikipedia which has an article including headline, teaser, snippets, summary AND link to the LSR article. Now google does not need to pay. Now all those linking to the wikipedia-redirect are 100% save, no legal riscs.

      See how stupid that is? If any search-result links to a “neutral website” (as in run by non-profit) that redirects to the article. But in future it my indeed needed for ONLY german articles ONLY accessed from within germany to not get into legal risc troubles.

  5. Bart Brouwers Reply

    There is one thing though I don’t really understand, Martin. If it’s true that legacy media don’t publish anything that opposes the Leistungsschutzrecht, then that’s very scary but not fatal. In fact, they are not the only media, are they? There must be some bloggers, websites, other new media representatives who do. And if not, there is more wrong in Germany than you are writing about.
    Btw, great comment from _Flin_, thanks for that.

    1. Martin Weigert Reply

      Unfortunately, blogs and alternative media simply don’t have a comparable reach. Germany is very special in that regard. There is no German Huffington Post for instance.

      1. Sven Reply

        Well, some media (FAZ) did a pretty good job, letting Frank Rieger explain the “Leistungsschutzrecht”. OK, even there, it was one article of many. And only one.

        And what is new, when it comes to the press not publishing anything, that goes against their own agenda. Even across a lot of publishing-houses. Well nothing new under the sun.

        What is really, really bad, is the fact, that the law is so fuzzy, that everyone quoting from another source might be potentially liable. This law is so bad, because it just might kill the independent voices. And I think there might be a reason for this.

        Because the press oftentimes has no incentive to dig deeper, to ask critical questions, when it comes to the really important questions, this job is left for the independent voices, that do this out of a feeling of necessity. But if these voices are silenced through fear…

        … well, I think you get the drift. And I know, this sounds a lot like conspiracy – and I am not saying, my thoughts come anywhere near the truth, but I just wanted to share the thought.

        Just one example: The so called “Netzsperren” were reported by the big media as being bad, after a lot of independend bloggers had written about it and the discussion just could not be “ignored” any longer.

  6. Alan Reply

    “It’s lobbying at its worst under the disguise of objective journalism.”

    Do you really think this is not the status quo with all of the publishers all of the time. This is just the first time you disagree with what they are lobbying for.

    Perhaps you have really exposed the problem with today’s big publishers. It’s nice when they lobby for what you agree with but sucks when they lobby against your interests.

    “So the scary thing is that in a situation when the public really needs and independent mainstream media, there is none, because the mainstream media wants the law.”

    Precisely. There is none…. and it isn’t only on this issue that the media is the party of big government and big business in collusion.

    You’ve been living in a fantasy world believing there is an independent media fighting against evil in this world. The bubble has popped, you’ve seen the matrix, and now it is time to take the red pill.

  7. Jeff Reply

    The problem, as I see it, is that Google and friends have conditioned people (myself included) to 1) expect free news and 2) accept the low quality of said free news.

    They’re either going to have to be happy with the system as it stands, or come up with a very effective way to provide lesser free content while smoothly charging for more in-depth stuff. Of course, this would likely only be a negative for society as a whole…

    1. Sven Reply

      Well – even before Google, I expected this. A friend of mine wrote something like Google News some years, before the Big G launched it. And even then the publishers were opposed and took him to court.

      They could have just used a robots.txt back then, but the didn’t.

      It was Google, who after being sued by the same publishers fought in front of court, so that a link is no infringement in Germany since then.

      The publishers back then would have wanted this – and that was in the early years of the 2000s..

  8. Johannes Reply

    Where’s the problem? Just read international news sources. German news are days behind anyways.

    No one will shed a tear if spiegel & co aren’t in the google index anymore.

  9. Manu Reply

    Yeah, Germany, where >75% of “quality journalism” is c&p dpa messages to any blank space possible and the really important news are found first on blogs or twitter.

    It’s a bad joke, Google not even having ads on their news excerpt site.

    Funny thing I read, they want to be the headlines be copyrightable. I wonder how that should work, given the language and syntax isn’t unlimited, one could easily come up with all legal headlines and register them.

    Ich lehn mich mal zurück…

    1. Sebastian Reply

      Its not the headline standaline but only in combination with a link to the article.

      The trick is to add the headline into the url and then the standalone link itself is covered already.

  10. Rafael Reply

    You may think about the LSR what you want and if you call it a stupid law you might be right. And certainly spreading misinformation about the law and its background does not cover the publishers in glory.
    The Google anti-campaign however is downright disgusting. If they would just express their opinion about the law and the reasons why they don’t like it that would be fine. But instead they are trying to manipulate people into thinking that they are under attack (“Verteidige Dein Netz!” – “Defend your Web!”), trying to make their personal cause the public’s cause, wanting them to complain to their local lawmakers directly – thereby placing themselves on the same level as the publishers.
    But: whereas the publisher’s actions are to some extent understandable, given their tight economical situation, Google’s response is just ignoble. They should feel ashamed.
    Btw I used to work for Google as an Engineer so I happen know the company a bit.

    1. Marcel Reply

      But they actually ARE attacking our web. The law is vague enough to make linking to speaking urls( a suable offense. If a website has the choice of offering great features and risk getting sued or offer less features, just to be safe, their users get a worse experience. Extend this to literally the whole internet and it becomes clear that the publishers(that are fucking stupid, robots.txt ffs) are literally attacking our web.

  11. Gary Gapinski Reply

    While I am unfamiliar with German media and cannot comment on its coverage of this issue or lack thereof, I feel confident to predict that a service – and it indeed is a service – such as Google, which is one of many, and one of several dominant ones – can choose to include, or be excluded by, German media services. It would be unfortunate that such media services be compelled to attract attention on their own, as such a task appears to be quite difficult in comparison to the current state of affairs, namely, that search services such as Google provide pointers to items of interest, and the absence of these media services from popular index services such as Google would diminish their popularity. What I do not understand is why such German media providers would think that they are entitled to any revenues from a service they do not provide. If they actually believe this, they could peremptorily prevent this perceived “theft” by simply denying access to their services.

  12. problem solved Reply

    this is nonsense. google should ban each and every address of those newspapers. like if they used robots.txt
    they will go bankrupt in no time. problem solved.

  13. Miramon Reply

    Yeah, Google may or may not be reacting poorly, but the law is stupid even for the publishers. They will just hurt themselves in the end. On the one hand, they will wind up sending some existing traffic to non-German primary news-sources that provide German-language localization, and on the other foreign aggregator sites will ignore the local law. Is the same law current in Austria, for example? They won’t even have to localize there if not.

    As someone said above, the publishers can’t have it both ways. Either they should apply a pay-wall and provide premium content that people will actually pay for, or they should allow linking to free content, because the purely legal approach is just dumb.

  14. ShaneR. Reply

    The best solution is for Google to immediately dump every link in their databases to the German domain until Germany gains some sanity.

  15. Daz Reply

    News services should be paying aggregators for advertising – if the aggregators are displaying a headline or 2 lines, and then directing people to the news service, that is driving people towards the news site.

    As Martin said, if you don’t want the advertising, use robots.txt. Google et al would be happy to drive traffic to another service that wants the traffic.

  16. Jan Reply

    I see it this way: News websites want to be removed from the internet because it’s evil. Yes, they could just use robots.txt, but they want a more clean delete including all social media. Let’s do them the favour.
    People still want to consume and share news online, there will be a new huge market for Creative Commons published news and money to be made. So why cry about the dinosaurs that choose the jump off the cliff? Let’s focus on building and supporting alternative cc’ed news services.

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  18. kikito Reply

    Let them do it.

    France already has tried to do something similar. Google said: “I’d rather remove your newspapers from my index than pay you just to show the headlines”. I don’t see this being any different here.

    Here’s a fact: for a lot of people, Google is equal to Internet. They don’t understand the difference. If the newspapers are removed from Google, they are effectively offline for all this people. Can they afford that?

    I don’t think it would happen, but I would not be entirely surprised if Google just deindexed all newspapers from Germany… and then requested them to pay to be indexed back. That’s how good their negotiating position is.

  19. Hok Reply

    There is nothing scary about this. “Scared” would be the right word. Newspapers are dying, even big ones, because there is no more money to be made, and it’s because of the internet.

    Some cut down on quality of journalism, some don’t check their spelling anymore, and some just declare bankruptcy and vanish forever (FTD and FR are the latest victims).

    The publishers are afraid to die, so they are clutching at straws. I wish at least some quality newspapers would survive, but the future is bleak. This law won’t help them either, I’m afraid.

  20. Ben Reply

    Sounds to me like publishers sticking a collective foot in the mouth, then shooting themselves in the foot. I have faith in the phenomenon of survival of the least stupid.

  21. Manuel Reply

    I think this a cheap way to get their publications subsidies by big internet companies.
    There is no need for a law. If they don’t want go get crawled, they could use the robots.txt.
    If they want to make (more) money, they could use paywalls. But it’s much harder to produce high quality content, for which the user is willing to pay instead of get a bunch of money for all the content from google and co.

  22. Rebentisch Reply

    News Aggregator services as Google News compile news feeds from other sources without financial contributions to the news publishing industry. News snippets are the very essense of news. In Belgium they settled with the publishers, in Germany the state consideres a legislative solution. Of course that move may include measures to clarify and strengthen ordinary quotation rights. After all this is about compensation of those who generate commercial value from large-scale automated compilation of the works from others.

    1. Martin Weigert Reply

      News have no value anymore. News are a commodity. You can have monkeys write news articles nowadays, if they are a bit smart. News are old two seconds after they’ve been published.

      You totally overestimate the commercial value if news.

      The value is in background stories, analysis and so on. And for that, a snippet on en external site is never a substitution, thus no threat either.

  23. Marc Reply

    Hi Martin,
    there is one point, that i missed: both sides of the story are making a lots of money with news and opinions.
    The newspapers buy their content and stories from big aggregators like Reuters and DPA. Google itsself dont pay anything for the news.
    If it would be fair, Google would buy the news directly form the aggregator, set it up with a own team of journalists and drop the newspapers out. 😉



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