Google and other tech platforms are facing a new challenge in Spain, where Google News reopened last year following an eight-year shutdown.
Spain’s competition authority the Comisión Nacional de los Mercados y la Competencia (the CNMC) opened an 18-month disciplinary process against Google in March to look into whether the tech giant is abusing its position of dominance and engaging in anti-competitive practices against news publishers.
Spain is one of several countries where Google and Facebook are currently facing the threat of legislation to force them to pay for news.
Australia passed its News Media Bargaining Code in 2021 requiring Google and Facebook to pay publishers. In Canada, the Online News Act, which contains the threat of final offer arbitration if deals cannot be struck between news companies and tech firms, is currently making its way through parliament and has led to experiments in news-blocking on both Google and Facebook. The UK and US are also in the process of adopting similar legislation.
Press Gazette spoke to news industry representatives in Spain to understand what might lie ahead for tech giants in the country.
For Irene Lanzaco, director general of Spanish news industry trade body la Asociación de Medios de Información (AMI), which represents many of the country’s best-known newsbrands including El Pais and El Mundo, the asymmetry between the tech giant and the publishers is clear.
“There is a lot of information on Google’s side and very little, if any, information on the side of the publishers,” she says. This means that Google is able to capture and monetise valuable audience data coming out from news and only the tech giant really knows how much news is worth to them, says Lanzaco.
Was Google News closure a ‘disaster’ for publishers in Spain?
In 2014 new Spanish legislation requiring that news aggregators pay a fee for linking to news content led Google to shut off its news platform in the country. Google News was reinstated last year after a new law was passed in 2021 allowing publishers to negotiate individually with Google.
The 2021 legislation came on the back of a 2019 EU digital copyright directive that requires online platforms to pay publishers across the bloc when displaying their material online but allows aggregators and platforms to use news “snippets” without licensing if it is a “very short extract” or “individual words”.
Spain’s new law puts it among a handful of European countries, also including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary and the Czech Republic, that have adopted the EU directive in their domestic rulebooks.
The relaunch of Google News was also accompanied by the launch of its Showcase project in Spain, through which publishers are paid for creating short newsfeeds for a dedicated section of the platform. Some 140 Spanish newsbrands from 60 publishers have signed individual agreements with Google to appear in Showcase.
According to Juan Zafra, head of Club Abierto de Editores (CLABE), a trade body that represents many of the country’s digital native newsbrands, the closure of Google News was a “disaster” that led to large traffic drops for its members. CLABE originally campaigned against the law that led Google to shut down its news platform in the country.
Lanzaco, however, says the evidence she has seen demonstrates otherwise. While traffic fell in the days after the shutdown, she says, AMI members saw much smaller drop offs than Zafra suggested. “The effect of [the shutdown] was that we improved quality metrics related to direct traffic which is the most valuable for us, of course.” A 2019 study by US media industry body News Media Alliance found similarly.
'Who gets the most out of it?' Only the platforms know
The CNMC disciplinary process in Spain follows an antitrust investigation against Google in France, which resulted in a win for the country's publishers. In 2022 a framework agreement was reached between publishers and Google requiring Google to pay French outlets for use of their content in online search results. Among European countries France has been most aggressive in ensuring that the search giant adheres to the EU’s new digital copyright rules. A year before the agreement, France fined Google €500m arguing it had flouted the directive.
Under the French agreement, Google has promised to negotiate "in good faith" with media organisations over payments and to share with publishers the information needed for news bosses to determine whether the amount is fair. According to Lanzaco this is what is lacking in Spain.
"[Publishers and Google] benefit from each other. But who gets the most out of it? Only Google and the tech platforms know because they have the data," she says.
"What’s not understandable is that news is of no value to the platforms. We all know that this is not true," says Lanzaco. "They should compensate the media fairly for the use of our content."
“Tech platforms live in a perfect world where they use content that is invested in by others and that is created by the talent of others and that is the legal responsibility of others and they just take the data," she says.
Asked if Spain could consider the kind of final offer arbitration on the table in Canada should a deal not be reached, Lanzaco said that publishers in Spain would look at "possible solutions and make our minds up afterwards".
She says however that publishers in Spain are looking in the first instance to reach an agreement with the platforms. So far, only Google has opened discussions with publishers in the country.
"All of us should be realistic and sit at the table so as to be able to come to a common understanding within the framework of the antitrust authority," she says. "But really what we should do is to invest in agreement not in dispute.
In Zafra's view, technological change has brought a necessary change in the balance of power. "We come from a world in which there were very clear positions of dominance and this is over," he says.
But he hopes that the CNMC process will result in more transparency. "What we need is for the media system - publishers, digital platforms and all content producers - to be more transparent. And if this process helps provide transparency to the system, then it's welcome."
Despite Google's decision to shut down news in the country in 2014 and its temporary shutdown of news in Canada in response to its legislation, Lanzaco believes that Google does want news on its platform.
"Google is mostly a responsible company. It's aware that news is important for society and that citizens get the news from Google's products and then they go to us. But news needs to be within the ecosystem of the search engines and tech platforms because that's where the audience is."
A Google spokesperson told Press Gazette that "Google works constructively with publishers in Spain and across Europe" and provides "significant investments through our products, programs and funding". The company said that it continues "to engage constructively with the CNMC in the context of their investigation."
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