Sascha Lobo: "Such a nonsense law"  19/06/2018 by redaktion

With the ancillary copyright, some publishers want to get a digital money printing machine from politicians – soon also at the EU level. How did we come to this?

If this country should one day fall into the hands of populists and extremists, a decisive reason for this will be the impression of a chummy relationship between the government and the media. Trump has shown how powerful this narrative is: They’re in cahoots together! – The assumption is that politicians and the media connive and conspire at the expense of the people. Such mistrust has already led to massive damage to democracy in Germany. The chummy relationship between politics and the media is in most cases only an assumption – but sometimes it does exist. For instance, right now.

This is the story of the Chancellor, who works for a law that comes directly from the media group of her friend Friede Springer. It is the story of Axel Springer CEO Matthias Döpfner, who so wants to meddle in big politics – and manages to do this in a catastrophic fashion. It is the story of how the German CDU and CSU Members in the European Parliament made themselves the political arm of Axel Springer. Or the bottleneck, depending on your perspective.

Massive pressure on MEPs

On 20 June 2018 a vote will be held in the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament on the revision of copyright law. This is essentially about two points. On the one hand it’s about upload filters, that is: censorship machines. In a dangerous and intransparent way, those prevent the uploading of certain content on social networks. The BBC reports that even the meme culture of the Internet could be banned. On the other hand, it concerns a European ancillary copyright for press publishers, in short: AC.

A narrow majority for the ancillary copyright appears to be foreseeable. On the one hand of this vote are the elected members of the European Parliament. On the other side is basically the Axel Springer publishing house. It sounds absurd, but it's almost the same.

Many German CDU and CSU Members of the European Parliament have publicly put other EU parliamentarians under massive pressure to vote for Springer's ancillary copyright, according to EU Insider. Due to the compliance of the German Union Parties, the legislation has become the plaything of Axel Springer across Europe. According to the populist type, critics are reviled as Google lobbyists. As if there were only black and white, and anyone who does not go with Springer would have to be partisans of Google.

It gets even harder. The German coalition agreement states: "We reject a commitment of platforms for the use of upload filters [...] as disproportionate." Nevertheless, CDU/CSU will probably vote for upload filters. Why? If you speak with MEPs, they offer a disturbing explanation: France has been allegedly pro upload filters, but against to ancillary copyright. Then they swapped, Germany said yes to censorship machines, France agreed to AC. Germany breaks the coalition agreement to introduce an “Axel Springer Law” in the EU.

A law as a money printing machine

The ancillary copyright is a lawless nonsense law. It should make the display of search results of publishers liable for a fee. Sounds like an anti-Google law, but it's much bigger, because it could make internet links payable. Critics therefore call the AC "link tax", to pay however to private publishers.

It would probably also affect users of social media who link to press articles. This is difficult to say precisely because it’s hard to predict the precise effect of a nonsensical law and of the following court rulings. Moreover, several variants of the legislation are being debated in the European Parliament up until the very last minute.

That's also the reason why Germany was against it in previous votes: some Axel Springer MEPs (CDU/CSU) thought the version was too lax. In their opinion, Google and co. should not only pay for the display of search results – but also be obliged to list the publisher's content. For Axel Springer, the politicians should decide on a legally guaranteed business model which is not based on market success. Then the German government could actually give the publisher a money printing machine. In a strange way, that would be fairer.

The shattering fear of politics

There is a blueprint for this problematic mixture of media and political power. Since 2009, a group of German publishers under the leadership of Axel Springer has been lobbying for a German ancillary copyright with the help of numerous blatant lies. They found a supporter in Angela Merkel In 2011, who told a newspaper publisher congress that the federal government was already working on a law.

Although at that time a tremendously broad, political and social front was fighting against the law. It does not happen often that BDI, Linkspartei, Chaos Computer Club, Bitkom, the Greens, the trade association and the liberal liberals of the FDP as well as most scientists in the field of copyright pull together. Politics under fear of the "Bild" newspaper – this is not new, but nevertheless shocking.

Springer's parallel reality

The idea for the German ancillary copyright was created when German publishers noticed that advertisers prefer to spend their advertising money on Google rather than on newspapers. The economic pressure on the publishers was and is considerable, although partly through their own negligence. But nobody likes to admit that. So, under Springer's leadership, a bizarre narrative was developed: a parallel reality.

In this parallel reality the reason behind Google's success becomes clear: the great content of German publishers. This is why AC payments had to be anchored down in a legislation, despite the logic, despite the current law, despite the digital reality that produced the old system. Publishers should not evolve, despite the digital transformation but, instead should once again receive a lot of advertising revenues. Just from Google. That was the 2013 plan from Springer based on Merkel's clemency.

How much has Google paid?

To claim that the German ancillary copyright law did not work is malicious gossip. In five years of AC, the total amount paid by Google to German publishers amounts to zero euros. That's not much for a law that should make Google pay.

Instead, the responsible collecting society, VG Media has tried to collect money from small start-ups. They’ve tried. This has amounted to nothing. In 2017, VG Media took in 30,000 EUR from the AC on behalf of the press publishers. Minus expenses of 2,250,099 EUR for law enforcement. The ancillary copyright was able to generate 75 EUR in legal costs for every single euro of income in 2017. Is that already a world record?

Online users should also pay

In a normal world, the law would be recognized as nonsense, to put it mildly. In the parallel reality of Axel Springer one is forced to see it differently. CEO Döpfner explains this debacle as follows: "In Germany it did not work because Germany is too small as a country, as a market." This reasoning is so bizarrely wrong that not even the opposite is true. It’s like stating that the moon is not made of cheese because it is too far away from the earth.

Nevertheless, Axel Springer wants to extend this "success model" to the whole of Europe and has managed, in addition to Merkel, to sway relevant EU politicians to their imagined parallel reality. This includes, for example, former Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger, a glowing opponent of facts and ethics and a fierce supporter of the AC

In October 2016, he called on publishers to make sure that the Axel-Springer law would be well received. It worked out well for the printed press but stubborn online publishers were critical in their reporting. The leaders of the publishers had to change that in their hired team of journalists. But of course not through "censorship' but rather through "convincing people", according to Oettinger. One has to fight for it, just like Döpfner.

A gift to populists and extremists

One has to realize this: The lobbied law of Axel Springer is so enthusiastically adopted by leading EU politicians that it calls the assembled German press with economic interest to interfere with editorial freedom. Thereby abandoning the critical attitude that actually makes the press the "Fourth Power of Democracy". There is hardly a better symbol for the chummy relationship between politics and media. By the way, this comes against the multiple, vocal, explicit warnings of almost the entire copyright scientific community in Europe. Against every scientific opinion.

The whole unfolding of the AC debate reads like a political thriller poorly conceived by the AfD, with no other goal than discrediting of politics and the media at the same time. And yet, this farce is threatening to become a reality, a pattern of lousy power hogging by media houses and government parties.

In times when people's distrust in politics and the media is at a peak, it's extremely dangerous. Those are times when authoritarian political vultures lurk to exploit exactly this type of cronyism. The ancillary copyright in conjunction with the censorship machines of the upload filter will be introduced via Axel Springer in the EU – populists and extremists couldn’t wish for a nicer gift from Merkel’s government.

– This article was first published in German on SPIEGEL Online and we translated and published it with permission of the author Sascha Lobo –

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