Google hasn't caved in to Murdoch

The search engine has not capitulated to News Corp's demands

So, is this round one to Mr Murdoch? I don't think so. Google has announced two changes to the way it treats paid-for content. Its First Click Free programme, which currently allows users to access an unlimited number of articles, will now cap the number of subscription articles readers can view at five.

For Murdoch, this is still likely to be five too many. Jeremy Clarkson's weekly column is reportedly responsible for 25 per cent of the traffic to the Times's website. Will News Corp executives really be content for Clarkson fanatics to read his ramblings for free?

Google has also announced that it will crawl, index and treat as "free" any preview pages -- usually the headline and first few lines of a story -- from subscription websites. Such stories will then be labelled as "subscription" in Google News. This is still unlikely to placate Murdoch, who has insisted that even the use of a story's headline and standfirst is tantamount to "theft". Though clearly this principle doesn't extend to the parasites, plagiarists and kleptomaniacs who run the Times's (excellent) CommentCentral blog.

So, despite some bloggers claiming Google has "caved" in to Murdoch, don't worry. It hasn't. Had Google pre-empted Murdoch's anticipated deal with Bing by offering to pay him for News Corp content, we could have justly cried, "Capitulation!" But no one at Google is contemplating such an absurd manoeuvre. Instead, by offering to compromise with Murdoch, the search engine has made itself look like the reasonable party.

Murdoch's commitment to find new revenue streams for his newspapers is in many ways admirable. We can all laugh at the proprietor of Fox News and the News of the World declaring that "quality journalism is not cheap", but the Times's permanent bureaux in Baghdad and Kabul really aren't.

Much of the industry is trying to have it both ways, mocking Murdoch's verbal assaults on free content while secretly hoping he manages to "rewrite the economics of newspapers". The truth is that it may be too late for that. Google got there first.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Land Registry sale puts a quick buck before common sense

Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, property scandals would be much harder to uncover.

Britain’s family silver is all but gone. Sale after sale since the 1970s has stripped the cupboards bare: our only assets remaining are those either deemed to be worth next to nothing, or significantly contribute to the Treasury’s coffers.

A perfect example of the latter is the Land Registry, which ensures we’re able to seamlessly buy and sell property.

This week we learned that London’s St Georges Wharf tower is both underoccupied and largely owned offshore  - an embodiment of the UK’s current housing crisis. Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, this sort of scandal would be much harder to uncover.

On top of its vital public function, it makes the Treasury money: a not-insignificant £36.7m profit in 2014/15.

And yet the government is trying to push through the sale of this valuable asset, closing a consultation on its proposal this week.

As recently as 2014 its sale was blocked by then business secretary Vince Cable. But this time Sajid Javid’s support for private markets means any opposition must come from elsewhere.

And luckily it has: a petition has gathered over 300,000 signatures online and a number of organisations have come out publically against the sale. Voices from the Competition and Markets Authority to the Law Society, as well as unions, We Own It, and my organisation the New Economics Foundation are all united.

What’s united us? A strong and clear case that the sale of the Land Registry makes no sense.

It makes a steady profit and has large cash reserves. It has a dedicated workforce that are modernising the organisation and becoming more efficient, cutting fees by 50 per cent while still delivering a healthy profit. It’s already made efforts to make more data publically available and digitize the physical titles.

Selling it would make a quick buck. But our latest report for We Own It showed that the government would be losing money in just 25 years, based on professional valuations and analysis of past profitability.

And this privatisation is different to past ones, such as British Airways or Telecoms giants BT and Cable and Wireless. Using the Land Registry is not like using a normal service: you can’t choose which Land Registry to use, you use the one and only and pay the list price every time that any title to a property is transacted.

So the Land Registry is a natural monopoly and, as goes the Competition and Market Authority’s main argument, these kinds of services should be publically owned. Handing a monopoly over to a private company in search of profit risks harming consumers – the new owners may simply charge a higher price for the service, or in this case put the data, the Land Registry’s most valuable asset, behind a paywall.

The Law Society says that the Land Registry plays a central role in ensuring property rights in England and Wales, and so we need to ensure that it maintains its integrity and is free from any conflict of interest.

Recent surveys have shown that levels of satisfaction with the service are extremely high. But many of the professional bodies representing those who rely on it, such as the Law Society and estate agents, are extremely sceptical as to whether this trust could be maintained if the institution is sold off.

A sale would be symbolic of the ideological nature of the proposal. Looked at from every angle the sale makes no sense – unless you believe that the state shouldn’t own anything. Seen through this prism and the eyes of those in the Treasury, all the Land Registry amounts to is £1bn that could be used to help close the £72bn deficit before the next election.

In reality it’s worth so much more. It should stay free, open and publically owned.

Duncan McCann is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation