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By Valentina Pop, Sam Schechner and Keach Hagey
BRUSSELS -- The European Union agreed on a new copyright law aimed at reining in tech giants and throwing a lifeline to news publishers.
The Wednesday deal comes after months of opposition and lobbying from internet giants and open-internet activists that led to a stalemate among EU governments.
Two controversial parts of the draft bill held up negotiations. One, aimed at platforms that allow users to upload content, would make the platforms liable for copyright violations. The other would allow news publishers to negotiate licenses with aggregators such as Alphabet Inc.'s Google. Any search results that go beyond one word or "very short extracts" of news articles would be subject to such licenses.
The deal was made possible after France and Germany proposed a compromise last week, giving smaller internet companies some exemptions from the rules. The compromise coincided with a separate deal in which France agreed to support Germany on a natural-gas pipeline with Russia, according to officials in Brussels and Berlin.
"The negotiations were difficult, but what counts in the end is that we have a fair and balanced result that is fit for a digital Europe," said European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip. "The freedoms and rights enjoyed by internet users today will be enhanced, our creators will be better remunerated for their work, and the internet economy will have clearer rules for operating and thriving." The bill is expected to be formally approved by mid-April, after which European Union governments will have two years to include it in their national laws.
Copyright scanning is something many bigger, established sites such as Alphabet's YouTube already do voluntarily. But some tech-lobby groups say that smaller companies would go under if they had to deploy filters to detect copyright violations.
"Requiring platforms to use upload filters would not just lead to more frequent blocking of legal uploads, it would also make life difficult for smaller platforms that cannot afford filtering software," said Julia Reda, a member of the European Parliament from Germany who advocates internet freedom.
Many publishers have long fought for Google and other online aggregators to pay for the snippets of news content they display. Publishers argue that news content is a significant attraction for services like Google, drawing visitors who then might use other Google services. The publishers say that entitles their companies to a cut.
Google, for its part, argues that it already boosts publishers' revenue by driving user traffic to their websites and apps from its Google News service. The company says Google News doesn't generate any revenue on its own because dedicated Google News pages don't carry ads -- though Google also displays news articles at times atop general search pages that can also carry ads.
Google executives have said they might shut down Google News if it is obliged to pay for licenses to display even short snippets of news stories, much as Google did in Spain after that country passed a similar law in 2014.
The Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents Google, Facebook Inc. and other tech companies, urged EU governments to reconsider before formally adopting the law. "We fear the law could harm online innovation, scale-ups, and restrict online freedoms in Europe," said CCIA Vice President Christian Borggreen.
Earlier this year, as part of Google's lobbying effort, it performed what it described as an experiment, showing users what they could expect to see if they search for news on Google under the proposed EU legislation. In Google's experiment, the company assumed that rather than paying for licenses it would simply stop displaying snippets of news stories, providing only single links with publication titles but no information about the stories to which those links led.
Google said the experiment led to a 45% decline in traffic to publishers' websites from Google News.
Several groups representing publishers said in a joint statement that they believed the experiment was a ploy. "Google prefers to provide a bad product rather than ending their freeriding of the work of journalists and publishing houses," the groups said. They said if Google actually did such a thing, people would abandon Google.
The publisher groups on Wednesday welcomed the EU agreement.
The draft directive has been the subject of heavy lobbying on both sides, with open letters to negotiators. Publisher groups put out a letter from an Agence France-Presse war correspondent this week, saying that "failure in your talks risks condemning hundreds of media outlets."
Similar efforts to give publishers a way to negotiate with the platforms for payment for the use of their content are continuing in the U.S.
Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, last year introduced a bill that would waive antitrust rules preventing publishers from organizing to negotiate with platforms such as Google and Facebook. The bill didn't pass, but now that the Democrats control the House, he plans to re-introduce the legislation, his spokesman said.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 13, 2019 18:56 ET (23:56 GMT)
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