Ancillary Rights, or the Link Tax

The European Union is about to institute something they call “ancillary rights,” which everyone else is calling “link tax.” The idea is that some websites will have to pay the equivalent of royalties when they post a link which shows a snippet of text and perhaps a picture.

It’s part of a broad attempt to update and standardize copyright laws for the European Union, which seems like a good idea, but this particular idea is far from good. Tech Dirt says that the impetus comes from traditional publishers who feel that Google and others who use links with snippets are somehow stealing from them. In fact, these links send traffic back to the publishers. Spain, which has already passed a link tax, was abandoned by Google News, and a study commissioned by publishers there found that the effect has been negative.

Ordinary text links won’t be affected, just the kind of links Facebook creates when you include a URL in your post there. We know that many people will not click through such links, and will instead read and react to just the snippet.

facebook-link

Apparently some European politicians and publishers imagine that without the link, people would … well, here’s where it breaks down. Would I have mystically divined that the Examiner had a happy story in it and gone to the website and poked around until I found it? Of course not. I would never even have thought about this subject if Randi hadn’t posted the link about it, nor would I ever have chosen to visit Examiner.com, and that’s true for most of these links in social media.

On search engine results pages, website owners will no longer be able to choose what visitors see before they click through. Here again, those who favor this law seem to be imagining an unlikely scenario in which more people click through to see a pig in a poke than will click through on the basis of a headline and picture.

So who will be affected by this new law if it passes? First, there are the websites that use this type of link, which will have to pay fees to any sites they link to.

  • Google (though Google News simply stopped serving Spain when the law passed there)
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Feedly
  • Huffington Post
  • all the other social media platforms, news aggregators, and everyone else who uses this type of link

Then there’s a much larger group: all those websites that benefit from these links by gaining traffic and positive link juice from the sites listed above.

And of course the largest group of all, the internet users who will no longer find cool things that second group chooses to share. Good content curation takes a lot of time finding excellent online resources and sharing them. Without that, and especially when search engines are restricted by this rule, you won’t be able to find those resources as easily as you can now.

The law in question doesn’t allow websites or organizations to opt out — that is, your business can’t declare that you want people to be able to share your content freely, even if you use Creative Commons licensing or other measures already in place to encourage sharing and collaboration.

Spain has already passed such a law, and Open Media reports that smaller publishers there are losing traffic at twice the rate of larger publishers. Large and small, they’re losing traffic, but it’s more of a hardship for the smaller organizations.

Internet users in Spain have also lost access to Google News, since Google chose to leave rather than pay the tax.

google-links

I have never been to Spain and I don’t know the local news consumption habits there, but I know that Google News is an important source of news for me. I also know that Facebook is the top source of news for Millennials. Reducing access to news seems like a move that is likely to results in less educated voters.

A less-informed citizenry, hardship for small publishers, limited opportunity for organizations providing useful content for readers — these negative results seem like plenty to offset the potential financial benefit for some publishers.

Since Spain’s results show that the financial benefits didn’t actually happen, it’s fairly clear that the link tax is a bad idea. Let’s make sure that it doesn’t happen in America.

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