The New Pathway of Journalism, Thanks to Google

Every day, many times a day, people all over the world go to Google News to search for the latest news stories. And whether they're searching for news about "fiscal cliff" or "Kim Kardashian and Kanye West," Google News does for news what Google does for the Web in general -- it gives the user a list of relevant links drawn from its enormous and constantly-updated database. When users search for a specific news story, Google gives them a list of headlines with a one- or two-line snippet from each article -- and a link to the original, full, news item.

Google News has helped to change the way many of us consume journalism. Rather than page through the paper, either online or in print, we search for articles relating to topics that interest us. Google serves as our news portal, newspapers as the content suppliers.

As you might imagine, not all newspapers like this. Many believe that Google News robs them of traffic because the headline and snippet that Google provides is enough information for many readers, who then won't click through to the newspaper website. To make matters worse, Google doesn't pay for this information. Newspapers especially resent that Google's enormous popularity as a news search engine allows it make a lot of money, mostly from targeted ads.
In fact, in Europe, some newspapers are urging their governments to pass new laws that would upend this system. The basic idea is simple and radical: Make the copying of links illegal. If links are protected by copyright, search engines will have to license the right to copy any link. In this way, copyright law will help move dollars from Google (based in Mountain View) to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (based in Munich.)

European politicians have given this idea a warm reception. German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out publicly in support of some form of copyright for news links. Likewise, in a meeting last month with Google's Chairman Eric Schmidt, French President François Hollande stated that France would legislate unless Google struck a satisfactory deal with the French press.
The proposal to create a new form of copyright in links raises two important questions. Will such a rule actually benefit newspapers? And will it ultimately benefit us -- the readers of the news? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is almost surely no.

Let's consider first whether making the unauthorized copying of links illegal will help newspapers. Google's most likely response to such a law is to drop from its search function any European newspaper that tries to collect the charge. This is essentially what happened in Belgium in 2011. A Belgian court ordered Google to stop posting headlines and snippets on Google News or pay fines of $35,000 a day. After Google removed any mention of the complaining papers from its searches, the newspapers, represented by a trade group called Copiepresse, rushed to surrender, voluntarily dropping the penalties.

As this episode shows, being linked to be Google is valuable to newspapers, because Google is now a crucial -- maybe the crucial -- news portal for many readers. One recent study examined a dispute in 2010 between Google and the Associated Press. A breakdown in contract talks between the AP and Google led Google to remove AP content from Google News for seven weeks. During that period traffic to the newspapers that have their content distributed by the AP dropped substantially. Another study examined what happened when Google added a "localization" feature that added local news content for Google users who provided their location. Local news went up, as did click-through to local news websites.

So there is reason to think that French and German newspapers should be careful what they wish for. And is a copyright in links a good idea for the rest of us? Here too, the answer is no.

One of the great features of the Internet is that it allows us to access news and information from around the world. Twenty years ago, almost no newspapers were online (The New York Times' website began operation in 1996), and in-depth news from a foreign country, or even a distant U.S. city, was hard to come by.

Today, any decent paper, here or abroad, has a website. We have access to more news, from more places and perspectives, than ever before. Generally speaking, this is great for us as consumers and as citizens.

Of course there is a downside to this open flow of news. Many small newspapers have suffered as readers migrate to bigger, sometimes foreign, papers via their online sites. Regional papers with proud histories, like the Philadelphia Inquirer, have been forced to retrench as their readers migrate online to national papers like The New York Times.

On balance, though, the gains from access to a wide and global variety of news sources are enormous. Creating a new kind of property right in links will disrupt this robust marketplace in news, and limit our access to the best reporting from around the world. There is no good case for creating a copyright in links. The newspapers won't gain. And the public will lose.