Google mobilizes users in fight for robots’ core values

Its own public policy lobbying is now not enough. Google has taken the rare step of devoting homepage space to urge its German users to oppose government-proposed copyright reforms on its behalf.

Proposed in August and coming up for first reading in the Bundestag this Thursday, the Leistungsschutzrecht — or, ancillary copyright — would give news publishers the exclusive right to control re-uses of their output, requiring others obtain a license even to excerpt.

Google fought back on Tuesday by using a homepage campaign to ask users to complain to elected representatives, casting the issue as one both of fundamental freedoms and of practicality: “For you, it would be so much more difficult on the internet to find the information that you seek. Defend your network.”

It is a mark of how seriously Google is taking the threat that it is trying to appeal to users’ emotions, enlisting them to fight the proposals. Google argues Leistungsschutzrecht will “damage the German economy” and “threaten the diversity of information”.

German publishers have formed their own counter-campaign

Google is widely thought to be allowed to crawl news stories of which it republishes only excerpts. Emerging law may suggest otherwise — a Belgian court ruled in 2007 that it did not have the right to run such excerpts and UK copyright authorities this year ruled commercial news aggregators (though not free alternatives like Google News) must pay a license for doing so.

In Belgium, news stories were only returned to Google after a private commercial agreement between it and publishers. So German publishers may feel confident in seeking an equivalent arrangement. And that would challenge the widely-held belief in free online excerpting.

But Germany is not the only front on which Google is facing a threat to these core values on which it operates…

This week an Australian court ruled Google had defamed a man wrongly accused of being a criminal in a web page not hosted by but indexed by Google for its search results.

That contradicts the settled view of many legal jurisdictions that online platforms are not to be considered publishers of information placed by others, though is consistent with other case law that holds such platforms liable from the moment they are made aware of infringing material on their platform.

My colleague, paidContent legal correspondent Jeff Roberts, says this may make it more likely would-be litigants shop for victories in forums like Australia.

France also recently set Google a year’s-end deadline for agreeing to voluntarily pay news publishers — or  it may legislate that it must pay a levy for the privilege. Google told French ministers such a compulsion would “threaten its very existence”.

So now Google is battling challenge to two of its central tenets — that it is not a publisher and only excerpts parts of articles.

Asked why its members don’t just block Google using robots.txt, the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers on Tuesday said via Twitter: “Robots.txt is a standard from the internet stone age. Why doesn’t Google want to use (alternative standard) ASCAP ACAP, that is the question.”