A little local difficulty for Google

The Belgians won in court, but now risk casting themselves into obscurity, as Becky Hogge reports

Last year, back when a girl could get a hotel room and a £500 fee for telling a roomful of newspaper execs what a blog was, a director from one of the UK broadsheets taught me a lesson about how the web was changing the news agenda. Each morning, he said, his assistant would download a page from Google News that listed for him and his editorial team the ten top stories around the world that day. Though it would by no means define where they might choose to focus their attention, it was another tool for them to use in their quest to talk back to the world.

Today, Fleet Street might be wondering what happened to Belgium. Because, in September, a group of Belgian newspapers represented by Copiepress, their copyright management agency, won a local lawsuit against Google News in which they accused the search engine of copyright infringement. A court awarded the papers a fine of €1m (£670,000) for every day their content remained on the site. Google will appeal against the decision, but for now it is removing references to the papers - including La Dernière Heure, La Libre Belgique and Le Soir - from Google News search results.

Launched in September 2002, Google News indexes thousands of sources, returning search results as small extracts of text and thumbnail photos clustered around individual news stories. A search for "Danish cartoons" at the beginning of this year would have produced perspectives everywhere from Jyllands-Posten to al-Jazeera. It's a valuable tool for today.

However, Copiepress has now established that, in Belgium at least, this practice infringes copyright. No matter that the search engine, by throwing up a link, drives readers from around the world to a paper's content, a free service that the press might once have been ready to pay for. If Google won't pay, then Copiepress won't play.

So, why would Google appeal? One struggles to imagine Larry Page and Sergey Brin losing much sleep over a world where Belgium no longer has a voice. Rather, Google is appealing about a point of principle. It claims exemption from copyright law under the US concept of "fair use" - the right to copy that allows for political debate, education or criticism. Google is fighting Agence France-Presse on US soil in a similar lawsuit, for upwards of $17.5m, in which fair use is likely to be put to the test.

But the corresponding European concept, "fair dealing", is more rigid and narrow, which could explain the Brussels court's ruling. Indeed, if the judgment stands, it calls into question the practice of Google's main search site, and thousands of other aggregators, including "human" sources such as blogs, which often quote directly from news stories.

Once again, copyright law is standing in the way of the intuitive benefits that networked communications have to offer. If the Belgian ruling stands, the only winners will be lawyers.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act