How Long Could News Links Blocking Last? What Spain Can Teach Us

With platforms in the process of blocking news links in Canada, one might wonder how long this will last. We look to Spain for answers.

Facebook is currently in the process of rolling out their news link blocking system. It’s a move exactly as experts and observers have warned about for years. This while supporters and the government kept clinging to the “But Australia!” talking point while denying the reality of the situation. In fact, to this day, some are even continuing to convince themselves that all of this is still a big fancy bluff and the platforms will come back any day now.

As for the rest of us who would rather live in the real world, a natural question in this situation is this: how long could such a news link block last? After all, some people out there are trying to run an online news business and some out there might be wondering how long such an impasse will last. Maybe there is a possibility of just putting everything on hold and just waiting it out. This while putting their main business into a sort of cryogenic stasis of sorts so it can be revived when sanity has finally been restored into the Canadian system.

For answers, we look to the country that supporters and the government really don’t like talking about: Spain. The large Spanish news sources also demanded payments for linking from Google. Google responded that they would never go for it. So, in response, Spain passed a law making it a requirement that if Google hosts links to news organizations, then they must pay licensing fees. Google, in response, took down Google News in Spain, causing total financial mayhem in the entire sector. As Arstechnica noted back then, it caused huge financial losses and full shut downs as a result.

Of course, all of this was back in 2014. What happened since then? Well, after 8 years, Google News services did eventually get restored in that country. As NiemanLab points out, the return only happened after the country finally rescinded the law in 2022:

Google says the loss of Google News hurt Spanish publishers, and there’s evidence to back that up. A 2017 study found, for instance, that “the shutdown of Google News reduces overall news consumption by about 20% for treatment users, and it reduces page views on publishers other than Google News by 10%.”

Last November, Spain overturned the 2014 law and instead signed on to a European Union copyright directive that lets publishers negotiate their agreements directly with platforms. The new directive still contains a snippet tax, but “the right to restrict such links is at least waivable,” explained Felix Reda, an affiliate of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and a former member of the European Parliament who focused on copyright law. “Publishers are free to charge news aggregators and search engines who want to link to their press articles using snippets, but they are also free to allow links free of charge.” As a result, Google News no longer has to negotiate with every individual publisher it links to in Spain.

Separately, on Tuesday, Google reached an agreement with France’s government to negotiate with French publishers over payments for links to their content.

So, had the Spanish government not backed down, the news links blocks would probably be continuing to this day. A proposition was put forward that Google could actually accept and that was how Google News came back to the country. The blockade, in theory, could’ve gone on indefinitely otherwise.

Of course, from a small business perspective, the prospect of Google disappearing from the market is way too much. I’m sure a number of small business leaders would look at the situation and say that it’s one thing to lose news links on Google for a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but nearly a decade? That is a bridge too far as they can’t wait that long.

In this case, the only real question is: how long will the Canadian government remain stubborn that this is the only way moving forward? So far, all signs point to them being extremely stubborn and not backing down from this destructive policy. This really is a question for individual entrepreneurs to answer. If they think they can wait out the governments stubbornness, then, by all means, feel free to do so. If they think that they can’t wait that long, then it’s probably a question of what they can pivot to for their next big adventure. This because the government has basically destroyed their careers. I know I’m certainly re-thinking my future in the event that I get swept up into the blocking.

It’s for reasons like these that many have commented that the destructive nature of Bill C-18 is enormous. It’s an extremely difficult task to overstate just how much harm this new law will cause. Sue, one can hold on to the idea that maybe a miraculous 11th hour deal can be struck for all parties, but this is an extremely big long shot and probably not something you want to bank your whole career on. At that point, you might as well bank your whole future on winning the lottery. Yes, it’s always possible, but the odds are most assuredly not in your favour.

The advice I would give to everyone affected by this is to start thinking of contingency plans now if you haven’t already. There’s still time to plan these things out, but that time window is definitely closing fast. The last thing you want to do is be caught flat footed if things hit the fan as they seem destined to do. If you can live without Google and Meta, great! Congratulations on your ability to survive. For others, however, planning things out now is probably what you should be doing if you haven’t already. This is probably going to take a really long time to sort out in the end.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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