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Why Is Google Playing Silly Buggers With Newspapers?

Among the hue and cry of the irrational newspaper industry, Google is adding to the newspapers’ argument by playing silly buggers with them at the moment.

On one hand, Google CEO Eric Schmidt is calling foul on newspapers, saying that “‘Frustrated Newspaper Execs [are] Just Looking For Someone To Blame” (Paid Content) and yet in the last week, Google has launched two new features that do nothing more than play into to the hands of newspaper owners.

The first was adding the ability for newspapers to block Google News via their Robots.txt files. A small announcement to be sure, except that newspapers have always been able to take themselves out of Google News by simply contacting Google (indeed, most people apply to get in.) The announcement was naturally spun as being a concession to the newspaper industry…despite the ability already being available via a request to remove, or by blocking Google altogether through the very same robots.txt file.

The latest move though was far worse again: Google has announced that it will allow newspapers to restrict the “free click” on news links program to five clicks per user over a set period, vs the alleged free-for-all today.

It’s got newspaper owners so fired up that Gavin O’Reilly, President of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers and CEO of Irish and South African newspaper publishers Independent News & Media had this to say on the move:

“…then yesterday, we heard that GoogleNews has just decreed – seemingly in acknowledgment of the damage that their existing rules cause to publishers – that it will limit free news access with its new “first-click-free program”

and

“The lack of copyright functionality online is, though, also down to the content aggregators who have broken that link between audience and success, who have seized the opportunity and opted for an “a la carte” vision of copyright to serve their own business needs and who, as we have seen with Google’s announcement yesterday about First Click Free, believe it is their role to dictate to publishers which business models Google will permit them to follow.”

Except that everything O’Reilly says is blatantly untrue. Sure, Google didn’t previously limit access via the first click free program, but why exactly should they? The program itself was introduced after newspapers requested it. But here’s the big catch: newspapers already had the ability to limit access with the first click free program, besides their ability to not participate in it to begin with (see Danny Sullivan for more.) The only difference is that they previously could do so themselves on their OWN sites, vs an option in Google.

How hard is it? well, check your cookies the next time you visit a newspaper sites, because you’ll without fail get one, if not more. All the newspapers have to do is use cookies to tally the number of times you read a free article over X time, then restrict access based on those cookies.

Is the method foolproof? No, but neither is what Google is offering, because (wait for it)…..it also relies on cookies to tally how many times you’ve got your free share of their content. Most internet users wouldn’t even know how to look at their cookies, let alone care for deleting them, so either method will have about the same success rate.

The whole “Google is stealing from us” line by newspaper publishers while at the same time they have the ability to take themselves out of Google tomorrow (which they haven’t) is nothing different to the whole “Google is ripping us off with the first-click-free program;” both lines are grossly disingenuous and say more about those saying it than they do about Google.

Which is why I ask again: why does Google keep playing silly buggers on the subject? Eric Schmidt and Google management seem to be fence sitting, attacking with one hand and giving in on the other, which as far as I’m concerned makes them not all that much better than the newspaper industry, the same industry that attacks Google, but won’t pull themselves out of Google index. Google needs to say enough is enough, and simply start saying “if you think we’re stealing from you, then lets take your content links out of Google Search and Google News, because that will be the end of story.”