In this article I am going to summarise some online content that’s been causing a big buzz around the world about a new intellectual property law in Spain. If that law becomes a success in Spain and gains wider adoption in Europe or around the world, my act of linking to news websites could soon become punishable by a fine.
Spain, the country where the fight against Google for the new ‘right to be forgotten’ online content laws started, has pushed a new law through its own parliament to further beat back Google’s power and influence over online media in the country, and which some experts think will also “kill” Facebook and Twitter.
As a surprise element in the government’s new proposed reform of intellectual property law, a new ruling gives publishers from the Association of Spanish Newspapers (AEDE) the right to charge a fee for anyone that adds “meaningful” fragments of description of their content when they link to it.
In effect, the new law, quickly nicknamed by Spanish media la tasa Google (“Google tax”), is designed to prevent copyright infringements by news aggregators such as Google News who are seen as benefitting by including a few lines of description when they link to a news article.
As a bit of background, in February there had been some criticism of Spain’s control of privacy and copyright issues around gaming and music. Well the government has now extended this to written content, driven by lobbying from AEDE, who are not happy for their original stories to appear in news aggregator sites or by people who pick up news stories and repurpose them.
Media experts said the law could hit social networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs, forums and Wikipedia, who could all be made to pay for uploading or linking to copyrighted content.
Sites that don’t compensate publishers for using their content could be hit with fines of between €30,000 and €300,000 (£24,000 to £237,000), or can be closed down if they do not pay up.
Spanish social media users, many of them using a hashtag of #librelinks or #freelinks, warned that the new intellectual property laws could presage “the end” of the free internet and social media in Spain and perhaps see wider adoption in Europe. Indeed, Germany is already brewing up a similar law, so the contagion is spreading.
Wider worries for Europe
I spoke to Kevin Poulter, a social media law specialist, who said there are definite implications for all other countries in Europe – but he didn’t think it would be immediate.
“Many countries will be watching what happens in Spain very closely to see what happens. I don’t thnk we’ll see a lot happen that soon but there will be close attention paid to how it is policed and what effect it has on internet use and advertising revenue.”
Christopher Beauchamp, an analyst at IG, said there could be serious wider implications. “The big worry is if other European countries follow suit – Twitter and others could find themselves shut out of markets just as growth starts to take off.
“Spanish media companies could find themselves more hurt by this law than any others really, especially if Spaniards look to other foreign news sources.”
There’s also been talk in Australia of similar laws, but a more immediate possibility is that it could get picked up by further EU countries. Germany has already voted a similar law, forcing payment for news snippets and known as LSR, most of the way through its parliament. Other EU countries are looking at ways of ‘taxing’ large US corporations like Google – with France’s battles with Amazon coming to mind.
The past few years has in fact seen several European countries, also including France and Belgium, look to enforce online copyright regulations, according to reports on the Global Cybersecurity Web. In France, the New York Times notes that publishers last year reached an agreement with Google to create a €60 million fund to help news companies expand their digital units, while in Belgium Google is forbidden to distribute written stories and photographs created by newspapers and news sites.
Poulter says the Spanish version of the law looks very difficult to police at a small level, as police already say they spend much of their time looking at social media for criminal law reasons, so the ‘cheaper’ way is to target only larger corporations as a way of scaring the smaller guy.
Indeed, the Spanish government and AEDE have clarified that the law won’t apply to social networks like Twitter and Facebook, but there is still concern about the wider implications for search engines or other sites that comment on and link to news rather than report the news.
“This [law] won’t affect the end user or the blogger, but big search engines that make a commercial use,” AEDE has said.
Journalist Julio Alonso on Medium makes the point that the Spanish law has been structured so that editors cannot refuse the use of “non-significant fragments of their articles” by third parties but they have the inalienable right (derecho irrenunciable) to receive compensation.
The introduction of the inalienable right was done to avoid what happened in Germany. If you are a digital editor that publishes with a copyleft license, like myself, and you minimally understand how the internet actually works, you cannot decide to not charge Google News. It is compulsory. More than a right it is an obligation. Therefore, Google cannot exclude sites requiring payment from Google News. It would still need to pay for those it includes, even if they do not want to be compensated.
Google Spain said in its own blog that more publishers choose to appear on Google News than ask to be excluded and pointed out there were no adverts on Google News so it did not gain monetarily.
Spanish internet users are working ways of legally operating outside this law: including a local news aggregator starting a boycott of AEDE or specially designed Firefox, Chrome and WordPress plugins to prevent users from unwillingly opening pages of AEDE sites to block new links being created.
At the moment, nobody seems to know how the new law will work (and apparently the law was passed in a specially convened session of parliament, with almost no debate and with many congressmen declaring to the press that they knew very little about what they were voting). More importantly, there is a momentum building and no one at all knows what the implications will be and for whom.