Ron Miller: Spain's link tax taxes my patience

The so-called Google tax is a desperate and wrongheaded gambit to save traditional newspapers.

The humble hyperlink, the building block of the World Wide Web, is under attack in Spain. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee defined his vision of the Web, it was to be a set of documents joined together by the hyperlink. The hyperlink is the essence of all we do here, which is why a new Spanish law is so vexing.

The law has its ambiguities, but in essence, it would tax aggregators such as Google News for linking to an article published by a daily newspaper. How is this misguided? Let us count the ways.

First of all, the Web has existed, at least conceptually, since the early 1990s. It's ludicrous to react to it in 2014 as though it had just appeared out of thin air.

Second, it is completely wrongheaded to say that entities like Google News links are suppressing the news business. That stance ignores the obvious benefits that linking brings, in the form of hundreds or thousands of readers who otherwise would not have been aware of the article's existence. In fact, if you found this column via a search engine, I welcome you with open arms.

Third, the law disregards the fact that the Web is based on the free and unfettered sharing of information via linking, as well as the fact that a whole generation of online publications and services have been built based on this idea.

Fourth, the Spanish economy is a shambles. The government can ill afford to start messing with a part of the economy that actually works in an effort to protect a dying industry through protectionist legislation.

This law was promoted by Spain's daily newspaper association, and it applies only to its members. Now, as the Quartz article that I linked to above notes, all websites have the option of not being indexed by search engines by using a mechanism called robots.txt to hide from the search bots. If Spain's daily newspapers really had a problem with their articles being discoverable by Google and others, they could easily opt out. Apparently, they don't want to do that.

That's because they probably don't want to risk losing some of their websites' traffic. But they do want to find another source of revenue. So this seems like one of those have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situations. Look, we all know that the way the Web works is that the more people who link to your content, the better, because that increases the likelihood that more people will come to your site, giving your content more value to advertisers. Eyeballs equal money in the online content game, and legislating limitations by adding cost to linking reduces one of the key ways sites get traffic.

While newspapers are at least partly correct to blame the Internet for their troubles, they should recognize that their own mismanagement also played a key role. Newspapers everywhere waited much too long to take the Internet seriously, and while virtually every surviving newspaper has a website now, they almost invariably treat those sites as a necessary evil, as something separate from the news collection and delivery that they do with print.

Unable to innovate to compete with more nimble publications and services born online, some traditional news outlets have turned to the last vestige of the disrupted. If they can't sue them into submission, they try to convince clueless legislators who have no idea about technology or how the online world works to do their bidding. In fact, they are simply sealing their fate a little tighter by shutting down a great avenue to promote their online business.

In 2014, links are good things. Google is the most popular search engine in the world. Why would you ever want to limit its access to your content? But if that's the way Spain's daily newspapers really feel, I say go ahead and activate robots.txt. Then let's see how well they're doing in six months. Something tells me they'll be eager to let Google back in, because linking makes the World Wide Web go around. To limit it in any way would be madness.

Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist and blogger. He is the enterprise reporter at TechCrunch.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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