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Google offers not to put News Showcase into search results in Germany as antitrust probe rolls on

In the latest bit of regulatory woe for Big Tech in Europe, Google is trying to settle a German antitrust investigation into its news licensing product by offering not to expand the display of News Showcase “story panels” into general search results.

The German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) announced today that the company has proposed several measures in response to its antitrust concerns — which also include taking steps to put clear blue water between News Showcase contracts and ongoing negotiations with publishers related to copyright licensing obligations around so called neighbouring rights for news.

Under EU and German law Google must pay copyright fees to news publishers for displaying snippets of their content — following a 2019 EU copyright reform which was transposed into German law in May 2021.

Unilateral attempts by German lawmakers — around a decade ago — to force Google to pay licensing fees to local publishers for displaying snippets of their content in Google News were easily thwarted by the tech giant switching to an opt-in model for the aggregator in the market.

Ultimately it’s taken a pan-EU directive — combined with local antitrust intervention — to force Google’s hand on this issue so it can’t simply change how it operates to circumvent payments.

Although the tech giant’s compliance with EU copyright law remains a work in progress, to put it mildly. (Its activity in the region on this front has already attracted a fine of over half a billion dollars in France, for instance, where Google’s approach to news licensing also remains under close regulatory watch.)

Germany is also scrutinizing Google’s negotiations with local news publishers — as well as, as of today, extracting operational concessions from it on how it operates News Showcase.

The FCO said it’s concerned that if Google integrates News Showcase into general search results, as Google has previously said it intends to, it will result in the company self-preferencing its own services or “impeding services offered by competing third parties”.

It also has focus on whether the News Showcase contractual terms “unreasonably disadvantage” the participating publishers — including by making it “disproportionately difficult for them to enforce their general ancillary copyright when participating in Google News Showcase”.

The regulator also said it is reviewing Google’s conditions for access to Google’s News Showcase service — to examine whether non-discriminatory access is ensured for publishers.

It’s likely no accident that just last week the FCO confirmed its ability to apply special measures to Google’s business, under powers to tackle digital market giants which were passed by local lawmakers at the start of last year. That shrinks the time frame for regulatory action and squeezes how much room Google has to try to wiggle around any FCO orders.

Similar Big Tech-focused copyright reforms are underway in the U.K., too. While ex ante rules for gatekeeping giants are well on their way to being adopted at an EU level (aka, the Digital Markets Act). So the operational leash for Big Tech in Europe is only set to shorten.

As well as offering not to expand the showcasing of licensed content to general search results in Germany, the FCO said today that Google has “already changed some of the practices under examination and declared its willingness to address any remaining ambiguities and concerns by modifying the Showcase contracts and providing clarifying statements”.

“In particular, Showcase contracts are to be clearly separated from the ongoing negotiations regarding other ancillary copyright payments between Google and the publishers or their collecting societies,” it added.

The tech giant announced the global News Showcase product back in October 2020 — when it said it would pay participating publishers $1 billion collectively to licence their news content to appear in so-called “story panels” (see below examples from Google’s product marketing) across Google products.


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