Why Google’s settlement with French publishers is bad for the web

After much diplomatic maneuvering and a series of face-saving gestures on both sides, Google (s goog) finally signed an agreement with French newspaper publishers late Friday that puts to rest a long-standing legal battle over Google’s behavior in excerpting stories on Google News, which the French have argued is copyright infringement. But while the search giant may be relieved to put the whole kerfuffle behind it, there’s an argument to be made that it has actually done more harm than good — not only to its own interests, but to the interests of the open web as well.
Veteran tech blogger Lauren Weinstein describes this risk well in a recent blog post, in which he calls what the government of France is doing “extortion,” and warns of the long-term risk of Google acceding to such demands that it pay for the simple act of linking and excerpting content:

“There is little evidence to suggest that ‘paying off’ a party making unreasonable demands will do much more than quiet them for the moment, and they’ll almost inevitably be back for more. And more. And more. Even worse, caving in such situations signals other parties that you may be susceptible to their making the same (or even more outrageous) demands, and this mindset can easily spread from attacking deep-pocketed firms to decimating much smaller companies, organizations, or even individuals.”

As my colleague Jeff Roberts noted in his post on the Google settlement, the French originally wanted the company to pay as much as $100 million, and wanted almost all of that to go into a fund that publishers could use for their own purposes, rather than into ad buying or other joint ventures. And he also noted that with the latest deal — which comes on the heels of a similar settlement with Belgium — Google is sending a very obvious message to other countries such as Germany that it is prepared to pay.

Google’s tactics set a dangerous precedent

Google HQ
This may make sense for Google, since it is trying to avoid as much litigation as possible, and wants to be on good terms with European countries (where it has already run into multiple roadblocks and barriers around services like Street View and privacy concerns). But I think Weinstein is right when he argues that this is only going to encourage countries like Germany — and plenty of others as well — to assume that if they push Google on the subject of linking, they will get cash.
Google wants these payments to be seen as a helping hand to publishers, which is why the fund is described as “supporting digital publishing initiatives,” and why it puts so much emphasis on the strategic partnership angle. But regardless of the picture it is trying to paint, the settlement is being described by many as a “pay for links” deal, and that perception is dangerous. As Weinstein puts it:

“France’s complaints regarding Google related to activities that are absolutely part and parcel of the fundamental and fully expected nature of the open Internet when dealing with publicly accessible Web sites [and its] success at obtaining financial and other concessions from Google associated with ordinary search and linking activities sends a loud, clear, and potentially disastrous message around the planet, a message that could doom the open Internet and Web that we’ve worked so long and hard to create.”

In other words, this issue is much bigger than just Google. While it may serve Google’s purposes to settle with France and Belgium, and perhaps other countries as well, all that does is encourage other governments and companies to see payment for links as an appropriate strategy. How long until U.S. newspapers and publishers start to argue the same thing? What about other companies? Director Harvey Weinstein (no relation to Lauren) said in a recent interview that the U.S. should have legislation to make this a reality — and Google is helping that kind of thinking gain momentum.
It’s cruelly ironic that the company spent so long arguing (correctly) that excerpts of books were fair use in its long-running legal battle with book publishers and authors — a battle in which at least one court has agreed with the company — and now here it is paying newspaper publishers for what is fundamentally the same practice. It’s a short-sighted appeasement strategy, and we could all be the worse for it.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Alexander Santander and Flickr user Affiliate