Google to newspapers: go ahead and block us with robots.txt if you like

Google is tempting online newspaper publishers, currently pressing for aggregation payments from the search site, to block its crawler if they really feel so strongly.

Google News manager Josh Cohen, writing on Google’s European public policy blog, said he “agrees” with the publishers’ statement, given to European media commissioner Viviane Reding last week, that they shouldn’t be “forced to give away property without having granted permission”. But: “Some proposals we’ve seen from news publishers are well-intentioned, but would fundamentally change—for the worse—the way the web works.”

Webmasters who do not wish their sites to be indexed can and do use the following two lines to deny permission: User-agent: *, Disallow: /,” he wrote, referring to the well-known robots.txt method of excluding search crawlers.

It effectively raises a middle finger to the 169 signatories to the Hamburg Declaration on Intellectual Property Rights, including Dow Jones managing editor Robert Thomson and News Corp Europe CEO James Murdoch, who, facing declining revenues, protest: “Numerous providers are using the work of authors, publishers and broadcasters without paying for it.” It politely reminds publishers that, if they really want to block Google, they can do so using an old fashioned protocol rather than tinkering with intellectual property law. As one commenter says, it effectively tells newspapers: “RTFM“.

Cohen: “The truth is that news publishers, like all other content owners, are in complete control when it comes not only to what content they make available on the web, but also who can access it and at what price … If at any point a web publisher feels as though we’re not delivering value to them and wants us to stop indexing their content, they’re able to do so quickly and effectively.”

This, though, is unlikely to dim newspapers’ increasing efforts to paint Google as a bogeyman. Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton recently suggested it was a vampire, “sucking our blood”. Publishers have also appeared in the UK House of Commons, warning MPs about Google’s “superdominance”.

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