February 01, 2013

Google, France, and the Extortion of the Internet

Recently, in How France Wants Us All to Pay Through the Nose for a Broken Internet, I expressed concerns over threats by the French government to financially sanction Google (and by extension, other Internet firms), in an effort to support increasingly obsolescent publishing models -- and in a manner that if widely adopted could literally spell the end of the World Wide Web and its open public linking model as we know it, to the severe detriment of the global Internet user community.

Today comes word that Google and France have agreed to Google's creation of a 60 million euro "Digital Publishing Innovation Fund" (and reportedly some ad-related revenue associated changes) to apparently settle -- for the moment -- France's demands, and (in theory, at least) to help transition French publishers toward more sustainable 21st century models.

This decision can be reasonably viewed as a short-term action (ending the current conflict with France) with laudable longer-term goals (helping French publishers move toward a more sustainable regime).

Yet while we can agree that the short-term benefits of this agreement are fairly clear, I am extremely dubious about its long-term advisability in terms of its impacts on Google, Google's users, and on the Internet itself.

The problem's scope should be obvious even to the most casual observer of history.

Whether we call it Tribute, Danegeld, or just plain blackmail and extortion payments, there is little evidence to suggest that "paying off" a party making unreasonable demands will do much more than quiet them for the moment, and they'll almost inevitably be back for more. And more. And more.

Even worse, caving in such situations signals other parties that you may be susceptible to their making the same (or even more outrageous) demands, and this mindset can easily spread from attacking deep-pocketed firms to decimating much smaller companies, organizations, or even individuals.

Let's be very clear. France's complaints regarding Google related to activities that are absolutely part and parcel of the fundamental and fully expected nature of the open Internet when dealing with publicly accessible Web sites, and pages not blocked by paywalls or limited by robots.txt directives.

France's success at obtaining financial and other concessions from Google associated with ordinary search and linking activities sends a loud, clear, and potentially disastrous message around the planet, a message that could doom the open Internet and Web that we've worked so long and hard to create.

Because if France can do this with Google, what's to stop France from the same modus operandi with other firms and sites -- or for other countries and entities to follow a similar course?

True, it's the largest firms and sites who are in the bullseye at the moment, but there is little reason to assume that the cancer of trying to extract fees from searching and linking of public sites won't spread widely down the food chain, in manners largely oblivious to whether or not any associated revenue at all is derived by the targeted sites and site owners.

It could be argued that most sites could simply refuse to pay such fees, and instead remove all links and search results relating to the parties demanding public website pay-to-play tribute fees.

In the long run though, this will destroy the open, public Web just as effectively, as connectivity and information exchange suffer a death of a thousand, a million, a billion cuts.

Back in early 2006, faced with Chinese government blocking, Google entered into an ill-fated agreement to provide censored search results to Chinese users. At the time, Google hoped that this would ultimately lead to more information for the Chinese people. After all, being able to at least get most search results would be better than getting no Google search results at all!

But as some observers predicted at the time, Chinese officials took this well-meaning compromise by Google as a signal to make ever escalating demands for more censorship and more control over Google's activities in China, ultimately leading to Google's termination of the agreement and withdrawal from a major scope of China-related activities.

While the situation with Google and France is obviously not identical to the Chinese saga, I am very concerned about seemingly similar underlying dynamics, with the potential to be widely damaging to the Internet and its users.

We must endeavor to resist government demands that effectively may hold the open Internet hostage. We must avoid whenever possible paying what amounts to extortion demands or watching the wondrous connectivity of the Web vanish link by link into walled gardens of greed.

I definitely do understand Google's dilemmas when faced with government demands of these sorts. And Google of course is quite rightly free to resolve these issues in whatever manners the involved parties feel are appropriate.

Increasingly, governments hunger to exploit and control the Web, no matter what the costs to freedom of information, open communications, and so much else that has made the Internet a wonder of the world. Unless we stand firm for what is right, we are all likely to be on their menu. All of us.


Posted by Lauren at February 1, 2013 02:42 PM | Permalink
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