COM­MENT & ANAL­Y­SIS

Ger­many pro­poses a Drudge Tax Gov­ern­ment seeks to im­pose fees on news ag­gre­ga­tors

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion -

Euro­pean politi­cians are on the hunt for new sources of rev­enue as the con­ti­nent’s fis­cal sit­u­a­tion wors­ens. The level of des­per­a­tion is clear in the lat­est move from Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s coali­tion gov­ern­ment to tap into the cash re­serves of In­ter­net search en­gine gi­ant Google to bol­ster that coun­try’s ail­ing pub­lish­ing in­dus­try.

The sec­ond item on the coali­tion’s list of pri­or­i­ties re­leased last week was a pro­posal to slap on­line news ag­gre­ga­tors with a tax. “On­line com­mer­cial ven­dors, such as search en­gines and news ag­gre­ga­tors, should in the fu­ture pay a fee to pub­lish­ers for the dis­tri­bu­tion of press prod­ucts (such as news ar­ti­cles) on the In­ter­net,” the doc­u­ment ex­plains. Any busi­ness that links to a news ar­ti­cle with a brief ex­cerpt is sub­ject to the scheme.

This ac­tion has far more to do with pro­tec­tion­ism than pro­tect­ing in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights. Web­sites such as the in­dis­pens­able Drudge Re­port, Times 24/7, Real Clear Pol­i­tics, Digg, Fark and Red­dit col­lect news from sources spread across the Web. These sites are wildly pop­u­lar be­cause they draw the im­por­tant sto­ries to­gether in one con­ve­nient place, ful­fill­ing a very spe­cific need among a news-hun­gry public.

Far from leech­ing off news­pa­pers and print jour­nal­ists, ag­gre­ga­tors are es­sen­tial to spread­ing the word about im­por­tant sto­ries. They drive sig­nif­i­cant traf­fic, which in turn gen­er­ates rev­enue for con­tent providers. It’s a win for both sides. For pub­lish­ers that dis­agree, Google al­ready in­cludes a sim­ple mech­a­nism for web­sites to ex­clude them­selves from search re­sults. If the pur­ported theft of con­tent were truly the is­sue, that would end the dis­cus­sion.

That it doesn’t shows this tax is not a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple, but of old-fash­ioned crony cap­i­tal­ism. The new econ­omy will be used to bail out the old econ­omy sim­ply be­cause the new econ­omy’s lob­by­ists aren’t as well-con­nected.

Europe isn’t alone in this fail­ing. Two years ago, the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion be­gan work on a project to “rein­vent jour­nal­ism” which would have taxed news ag­gre­ga­tors. For­tu­nately, the trial bal­loon was quickly shot down.

The Old World has let the bal­loons fly, ha­rass­ing Google on more than just copy­right is­sues. A Euro­pean Union an­titrust in­quiry is ex­pected to wrap up in the next few weeks. The euro­crats think the com­pany may have bro­ken laws by dar­ing to of­fer a search en­gine ser­vice so good that few con­sumers see the need to use Mi­crosoft’s Bing al­ter­na­tive search of­fer­ing.

When Google rolled out its “Street View” map ser­vice in 2007, the gov­ern­ments in Aus­tria, France, Greece, Italy and Switzer­land pounced, ac­cus­ing the com­pany of vi­o­lat­ing privacy laws by pho­tograph­ing public streets. Never mind that these same gov­ern­ments are more than happy to use speed cam­eras to pho­to­graph ev­ery pass­ing car, so long as it means rak­ing in mil­lions in rev­enue.

Europe needs to stop pun­ish­ing in­no­va­tion and the en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit, at least if it ever wants to see the econ­omy re­cover. Bu­reau­cra­cies are ille­quipped to pick win­ners and losers in the mar­ket­place. The In­ter­net is do­ing just fine with­out gov­ern­men­tal med­dling. It ought to be left alone.

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