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[ NNSquad ] Google, France, and the Extortion of the Internet

            Google, France, and the Extortion of the Internet


Recently, in "How France Wants Us All to Pay Through the Nose for a
Broken Internet" ( http://j.mp/WbOWP5 [Lauren's Blog] ), 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 ( http://j.mp/11e0aXW [Google Official Blog] ).

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

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

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.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com): http://www.vortex.com/lauren 
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: http://www.pfir.org/pfir-info
 - Network Neutrality Squad: http://www.nnsquad.org 
 - PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com/privacy-info
 - Data Wisdom Explorers League: http://www.dwel.org
 - Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance: http://www.gctip.org
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Google+: http://vortex.com/g+lauren / Twitter: http://vortex.com/t-lauren 
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 / Skype: vortex.com
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