Canadian Publishers Continue to Push for Suicidal Link Tax Law

Canadian publishers are continuing the push for a so-called link tax law. Such laws have proven fatal to the sector, but that’s not stopping them.

Last month, we covered the initial inquiries from the Toronto Star to try and get the ball rolling on a Canadian version of the link tax laws. At the time, it garnered very little attention as a serious threat, but we could already see the initial seeds of underhanded lobbying to make this a reality. Of course, it didn’t escape our attention and we pointed out at the time the disastrous consequences to pushing for such a law.

Shortly after, citing COVID-19 as having a detrimental effect in ad revenue, Australia moved up the push for a link tax law in their country. The idea is similar to Europe and France where the regulators want aggregators like Google to pay a tax for the privilege of sending traffic to publisher content.

All of this is inspired by what is going on in France where regulators ruled that Google cannot delete snippets from their search results and ordered the search engine to retroactively pay the link tax. That has led to speculation that the search engine could ultimately leave the country. The last time something like that happened was in Spain where publishers saw a massive drop on revenue and practically begged Google to return to the country. The situation in Spain caused many to say that this is a hard lesson of not biting the hand that feeds you. Unfortunately, it seems that shockingly few learned their lesson.

So, ultimately, a link tax law was a bad idea in Spain, bad idea in Europe, bad idea in France, and a bad idea in Australia. It seems that Canadian publishers are trying to prove that you can keep doing the same thing over and and over again and expect a different result. In an open letter, big corporate publishers are demanding that Google pay them a link tax citing, wouldn’t you know, Australia and France. From Richmond News:

Publishers that represent a majority of Canadian newspapers have penned an open letter to the federal government urging immediate action to make digital giants like Facebook and Google share their advertising revenues with Canadian media companies.

The letter, which appeared in an ad published in newspapers across the country Saturday, says the situation is urgent, with media companies suffering huge declines in advertising revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The publishers point to action taken recently in Australia, where the country’s treasurer has announced mandatory measures to force digital companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter to pay news media for use of their content.

The measures were to be completed by November, but are now being fast-tracked due to steep declines in advertising dollars caused by COVID-19 — declines that have forced many newspapers to stop printing.

As we pointed out several times in the past, COVID-19 is not magically Google’s fault. So, penalizing Google for COVID-19 really doesn’t make sense in any other reality other than what the big publishers seem to live in.

What is being fought over is largely what is found in Google News. News outlets manually submit their sites to Google News. Google News then adds it to their Google News search results. After that, users can search news stories on Google news, go to the publishers websites, and the publishers basically enjoy the added traffic going to their site as they basically rack up ad impressions and paid subscribers. The more sites submit their content to Google News, the more useful it becomes. As the service becomes more useful, more users use it. As more users use it, more users will go to the publishers websites. Ultimately, it is a symbiotic relationship that has been happily existing for more than a decade.

What Google does do is take a thumbnail of some sources and put them in results. This entices people to click on respective articles. Additionally, they also add a small sentence or two from the article (AKA “snippets”) to further drive traffic to the publishers sites. Both actions are perfectly legal because it’s basically fair dealing. It was legal before and it is legal now. There is no “using content without paying for it” by any means, so there is no controversy about this.

This is where publishers demanding a link tax starts to run into problems. There is nothing illegal about what Google does. So, what they appear to be doing is inventing controversy, pulling alleged crimes of aggregators out of thin air. They then turn around and say that Google is using their content without permission even though this has been legal for the longest time. Additionally, the publishers are trying to push the argument that Google makes a lot of money, therefore, they are profiting off of the publishers. The reality is that Google News is a free service and Google doesn’t make money off of it. Additionally, last time we checked, making money is not a crime.

With that, however, publishers go way off into the weeds by suggesting that Google is a monopoly over the publishers. While it is true that Google is a giant in the search engine world, last time we checked, publishers are not really a competing search engine. The news outlets are not competing against Google (see the aforementioned symbiotic relationship Google has with publishers). So, to use that argument against publishers pretty much pushes into the frontiers of absurdity.

To put a real world context into this, this is the equivalent of a store owner in a shop at a strip mall and saying that the parking lot is competing against him. That parking lot is using up space on the property and, therefore, they want it removed to make way for more shop floor space. Look at all those cars pretty much filling up every parking spot like they own the place. Let’s just dig up the parking lot and build over top of it. Every other shopkeeper is going to look at that argument and say to themselves, “This idiot is beyond hope. The sooner he goes under, the better for the rest of us.”

Probably the only truth in all of this is that COVID-19 has had a deep impact on publishers ad revenue. This is something we’ve known for some time now. So, if any other publisher out there is reading this, look into the statistics of where your website traffic comes from. If you are ironically using Google Analytics, check out your organic search results. Take that amount of traffic you get from Google and drop it by 60%-95%. Can you survive with a hit like that? Probably not. If publishers are successful in this suicidal endeavour, that is precisely what is going to happen. If you are feeling the pinch now, just wait until you drive Google out of the country. At that point, just close up shop, you are finished.

The unfortunate part in all of this is the fact that these big publishers are basically making a decision for everyone (including ourselves) who write news articles. We flat out disagree with these moves simply because we are not stupid. If these publishers don’t want Google to have any part of their existence, start looking into robots.txt. This tool has been around since forever, use it if you really feel that Google is stealing content from you. Opt out of Google news and vanish yourself from search results. This is your decision, not ours. Don’t drag us real journalists down with you in your quest to be greedy. That is precisely what is going to happen if you are pigheaded enough to drive Google out of Canada.

This is not to say that COVID-19 has had no impact on publishers bottom line. It does. We are seeing this first hand ourselves. As far as we’re concerned, publishers are free to demand government bailouts and emergency loans. Knock yourselves out over that, we don’t care. It’s when you propose taking a wrecking ball to the few things keeping everyone alive at this point is when we start having problems. The sooner this movement gets slapped down like the equally idiot mass Internet censorship plan in Canada, the better.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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