Google’s top news executive has refused to rule out shutting down Google News in EU countries, as the search engine faces a battle with Brussels over plans to charge a “link tax” for using news stories.
Richard Gingras, the search engine’s vice-president of news, said while “it’s not desirable to shut down services” the company was deeply concerned about the current proposals, which are designed to compensate struggling news publishers if snippets of their articles appear in search results.
He told the Guardian that the future of Google News could depend on whether the EU was willing to alter the phrasing of the legislation. “We can’t make a decision until we see the final language,” he said.
He pointed out the last time a government attempted to charge Google for links, in 2014 in Spain, the company responded by shutting down Google News in the country. Spain passed a law requiring aggregation sites to pay for news links, in a bid to prop up struggling print news outlets. Google responded by closing the service for Spanish consumers, which he said prompted a fall in traffic to Spanish news websites.
“We would not like to see that happen in Europe,” said Gingras. “Right now what we want to do is work with stakeholders.”
Traditional news publishers have a difficult relationship with Google, which they blame for sucking up much of the advertising revenue which used to prop up print newspapers. However, many are also heavily dependent on Google News to send millions of readers to their websites, which can help boost digital revenues.
Google has been lobbying hard against the relevant piece of European legislation which would introduce the “link tax”, known as Article 11, and its sister legislation Article 13, which is designed to ensure content creators are paid for material uploaded to sites such as the Google-owned YouTube.
The proposals were overwhelmingly backed by MEPs in September but Google is hoping to influence the European commission and EU member states before it is confirmed. The UK is likely to be subject to the legislation if it is introduced before the end of any post-Brexit transition period.
The EU is one of the few organisations large enough to force change at major tech companies such as Google and Facebook, which are reluctant to lose access to its 500 million citizens, putting Brussels at the heart of many lobbying battles over the future of the internet.
Gingras also claimed the proposed tax could impact on the ability of new news websites to find an audience through Google and said it could result in consumers seeing a reduced number of news stories in search results.
He also emphasised that Google News was not directly a profit-making business for the company, while conceding it did encourage users to spend more time on the company’s websites. “There’s no advertising in Google News. It is not a revenue-generating product to Google. We think it’s valuable as a service to society. We are proud to have it as part of the stable of properties that people have.”
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