Last September, the European Parliament voted in favor of the Copyright Directive: a sweeping piece of legislation intended to update copyright for the internet age, but critics said it would fundamentally break the internet. Now, as negotiations over the directive’s final wording draw to a close, Google has issued a warning about the damage the directive might do in an unusual format: an empty search results page.
To be more precise, it’s an empty search results page for news. One of the most controversial segments of the Copyright Directive is Article 11, which gives publishers the right to demand paid licenses for using snippets of their stories. From Google’s point of view, that gives it two choices: start paying for licenses or don’t show snippets at all.
In “test” screenshots (first shared with Search Engine Land) the tech giant demonstrated what the latter approach might look like. If a user in the EU searches for “latest news,” they would simply see links to media outlets’ sites alongside some tantalizingly useless timestamps. No summaries of stories, no headlines or pictures — no nothing.
In a blog post published last December, Google’s VP of News, Richard Gingras, explains the company’s position on Article 11, arguing that the benefits it might deliver (e.g., license payments to newspapers) would be skewed toward larger publishers, while Google would be forced to pick “winners and losers” when paying for content.
“Online services, some of which generate no revenue (for instance, Google News) would have to make choices about which publishers they’d do deals with,” Gingras wrote. “Presently, more than 80,000 news publishers around the world can show up in Google News, but Article 11 would sharply reduce that number.”
Diego Naranjo, senior policy advisor at digital rights group EDRi, told The Verge that Google was likely releasing these screenshots as a scare tactic, but that they weren’t an unreasonable interpretation of the legislation. “They’re just trying to show what Article 11 will push them to do,” said Naranjo. “And in that sense, this is a possibility.”
And what about the Copyright Directive itself? How close is that to being finalized? As is often the case with EU legislation, there is no clear answer. After the European Parliament voted in favor of the directive last September, it entered a process known as “trilogues,” which are closed-door negotiations between the European Commission, Council, and Parliament.
These trilogues give EU politicians (MEPs) a chance to tweak the wording of the Copyright Directive and potentially remove some troublesome parts. To do so, representatives from countries making up more than 36 percent of the EU’s population would have to band together. This is why bodies like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been encouraging citizens in key countries like Poland and Germany to lobby their representatives.
But these negotiations are not public, and it’s impossible to predict what changes, if any, might be made. The next major milestone will be a vote on January 18th by the European Council. If the legislation passes, this there will be a final negotiation between the European Parliament and Council on January 21st, and then a final vote sometime in March. After that, EU nations will have to start implementing the Copyright Directive into national law in 2021, and Google’s bare search results could become a reality.