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World's publishers face off against Google: It's getting ugly

I had a feeling this would be the end result. At first there was co-operation and pleasantries exchanged between the media publishers and Google, and then it all went sour. Online publishers and newspapers appear to be heading for a face-off with search engine behemoth, Google.

On Thursday, online publishers and print media in the guise of the powerful World Association of Newspapers (WAN) issued a rather terse statement, calling on Google “to respect the rights of content creators” and embrace a new access protocol for search engines visiting websites, known as ACAP.

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In the statement, WAN president Gavin O’Reilly, implied that Google’s reluctance to accept ACAP is as a result of “its own commercial self-interest”, adding that the search engine behemoth should “not glibly throw mistruths about”. This is the first salvo in what will probably become a key battle between Google and media players in the next few years.

ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol) is a proposed search engine protocol for accessing publisher websites, created by the publishing industry under WAN’s leadership. Publishers world-wide have started implementing ACAP on their websites. ­WAN says that publishers in 16 countries are known to have already implemented it. The consortium includes news agencies, book and magazine publishers, libraries and search engines as well as newspaper publishers.

WAN unhappy with a statement by Google European executive
According to the WAN statement, Google European executive Rob Jonas (who was referred to as “Ron” instead of “Rob” in WAN’s official PR) implied that Google would not embrace ACAP. He was quoted as saying this week that the current robots.txt protocol “provides everything most publishers need”, implying that the search engine was happy with the status quo.

Rob Jonas was at the WAN conference in Cape Town last year and spoke at the Digital Round Table, which I chaired. He’s a nice, approachable guy, reminding me a bit of James Bond, actually. If I remember correctly, his presentation was well received, although Google was both slammed and praised at the conference.

It’s interesting that WAN are firing off at Jonas over his recent comments. It was probably just some off-the-cuff comment he made sometime, somewhere, presumably at some conference. So it might appear at first glance to be an overreaction from WAN, but more likely this is symptomatic of a gradual cooling in relations between the two parties that has reached this point.

How ACAP works
The idea behind ACAP is that publishers would place code on their servers that would control search engine access. Currently the robots.txt method does this, but WAN is saying that it is too simplistic and does not give publishers enough options. Furthermore, it’s not a gatekeeping mechanism that online publishers have a stake in — the current access protocol was something imposed on them by search engines years ago. Here is an example of the ACAP protocol implemented in the robots.txt of the UK’s Times Online (You will see the standard allows for more parameters).

Stormy relationship
So now it appears that relations, which started off rather cordially, have broken down. Either the parties will enter into some serious arbitration or its going to go legal. Fundamentally I think this is all about money. (What else would it be about.) WAN will tell us now that it is about controlling access and respecting their rights. But essentially controlling access will mean that publishers will eventually be in a position to charge Google to crawl or list their content, even in aggregated form.

The relationship between WAN and Google has always been stormy. WAN President Gavin O’Reilly a few years back slammed what he called the “Napsterisation” of content — pointing to the fight between the music download service and the record industry. O’Reilly went on an all-out offensive, saying in interviews that we’re dealing with “basic theft” and “kleptomania” here. Rather strong stuff. I hope it’s not WAN’s intention to tacitly compare itself to the notorious RIAA.

Since these fighting words and the arrival of ACAP, relations with Google appeared to become cordial again. The adults decided to sit around a table and there were sweet words of co-operation for a while. Now that ACAP is becoming a reality, it now looks like the temperature has risen. In many respects Google has become a victim of its own success, and now the rest of internet wants an even bigger piece of the pie. The search engine giant is getting bigger and scarier everyday, or as Wired magazine puts it, going from “guerrilla startup to 800-pound gorilla”.

Two sides of the story
You can see both sides of the story here. The argument against: Why should Google aggregate and list content it does not pay for? This is content that publishers originate and there is a cost associated with it. The argument for: On the other side — how else is Google supposed to behave if it is to be a search engine? It has to aggregate headlines and blurbs, in order to send traffic through to websites. Arguably Google News is a competing news brand, using content that belongs to other news sites. But the search engine has also been very careful NOT to monetise Google News by listing Adsense on it — a move which would infuriate publishers who would claim that Google is directly profiting off content that is not theirs.

WAN also needs to be careful here. Although it represents a powerful publishing lobby of newspapers and online publishers, the publishing community is anything but united on this issue. Google may aggregate publisher content, but it is also a huge source of traffic and in some cases, revenue, for many publishers. Many online publishers would be reluctant to give that up, especially smaller and mid-size publishers that rely on Google heavily.

Also see: Why we love and hate Google and Google slammed, Google praised at WAN conference.

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