Bone-Headed Belgium Brouhaha

by on September 22, 2006 · 6 comments

Techdirt highlights an incredibly wrongheaded decision that was handed down this week by the Belgian courts:

In the ongoing case where a bunch of newspaper publishers are trying to force Google to pay them to index them and send them traffic (a move that has search engine optimizers worldwide wondering what they could possibly be thinking), Google appealed both parts of the ruling. The bigger issue (the indexing and showing links to Belgian certain news sources) will be heard on appeal in November. However, on the issue of forcing Google to place the entire text of the legal order on the front of both and, the Belgian courts have turned down Google’s appeal, and said they will start fining the company if it does not place the entire text (with no commentary, either) on both websites. This seems drastic and entirely unnecessary for a variety of reasons. All it really seems to do is broadcast the backwardness with which Belgian news publishers view the internet. It makes you wonder… do Belgian publishers require libraries to pay them extra money to list their books in a card catalog? What this really highlights, however, is that there are still plenty of industries out there that don’t necessarily understand how the internet works–and that can cause all sorts of problems for internet companies who assume most people understand when things are being done for their benefit.

The legal issues here are pretty well settled on this side of the Atlantic. Deep linking has been repeatedly upheld by American courts, and site administrators have several ways to remove their site from Google’s index and cache on request. The issue here is really about what the default should be: does Google have to get sites to opt-in to search engines, or do the sites have to opt out. If the courts were to uphold the former position, it would have a devastating impact on the search engine industry, because the logistics of getting opt-in permission from millions of individual site owners would likely be beyond the resources of all but the largest companies. If you want a stagnant search engine industry dominated by Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, just set up copyright hurdles that will make it virtually impossible for new firms to enter the market.

Update: It’s been pointed out to me that I should make clear the distinction between law and policy here. I have no idea if the case was correctly decided as a matter of Belgian law, about which I know nothing. It’s quite possible that the Belgian courts decided this case correctly based on the laws on the books in Belgium. My point was simply that this decision is likely to have bad policy outcomes. I should have that more clear.

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