Google cuts into European news niche

German, Italian newspapers seek legal protection

Rupert Murdoch may be the most vocal opponent of news being available for free on the Internet these days, but in continental Europe the growing controversy over how Google and other search sites are impacting the news industry is taking on contentious tones.

Italy’s Federation of Newspaper Publishers is eagerly awaiting the verdict on a lawsuit it filed against Google with Italo and European antitrust regulators, claiming Italian papers are being cheated out of a fare share of local ad coin.

Carlo De Benedetti, prexy of top Italo news publisher Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso, which owns daily La Repubblica, recently accused Google CEO Eric Schmidt of “acting everywhere as though the only law were that of California,” in total disregard of local copyright standards.

In Germany, publishing giant Axel Springer and other Teutonic companies are pushing a publishers’ rights law that will strengthen copyright and intellectual copyright protection.

“We think it’s a cultural difference: Here (in Germany and in the rest of Europe) more than in the United States, newspapers are seen as a national cultural heritage which is worth protecting,” says Christoph Keese, Axel Springer’s head of public affairs and the man behind the group’s online strategy.

Axel Springer, which publishes Europe’s biggest daily, the tabloid Bild, is negotiating with Google over two fundamental issues: “fair share” and “fair search.”

“The (German) industry requests either to be paid for snippets or to have a share in the AdWords business,” says Keese.

To bolster his “fair share” case, Keese cites the fact that the overall annual net ad sales of all German publishers on the Internet is in the vicinity of $257 million, while Google makes about 10 times that much with its AdWords ads tied to the same content.

As for “fair search,” the exec laments that search results “are being distorted because Google has this policy of listing its own services first” in a country where it holds a dominant share of the search engine market.

Rather than building individual paywalls, German publishers are collectively setting up a “one-click marketplace solution” where Google and other search engines would have to direct users to a fast and easy pay system for certain types of content from the very first click.

“Why shouldn’t Google evolve into something like an App Store for content?” asks Keese, referencing Apple’s online sales platform. “Many things can still be free, but publishers should be able to deliver price information along with the article.”In what is being hailed as a landmark case, Google-owned YouTube recently suffered a significant legal setback in Italy.

In mid-December A Rome court ordered the San. Bruno, California-based Google subsid to remove thousands of uploaded Mediaset clips after the top Italian commercial broadcaster, controlled by Silvio Berlusconi, sued the videosharing site for $730 million in damages, largely claimed to be from losses incurred due to Italo “Big Brother” uploads.

Mediaset has called the ruling “historic,” while YouTube said it is “considering its next steps.”

De Benedetti and other Italian news publishers are optimistic about soon obtaining a similar verdict in their legal action action against Google over news content.

As Axel Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner put it to Arianna Huffington at the Monaco Media Forum in November, “If you want to sell beer for free, fine. But don’t take our beer and sell it to someone else.”

Keese is adamant that this European take on free news is not old-school but simply the only way for good journalism to survive.

“The newspaper industry is often perceived as a backwards industry of people living in the past, but this is simply not the case,” he says.

“We are not making the print case. We are making the case for journalism. Whether it’s on the Internet or on mobile phones, or in print; basically we are open to those challenges. That’s fine. The problem is that on the Internet the legal and technical framework does not produce enough money to fund quality journalism.”

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