The real story behind Google News closing in Spain

“Adiós, Google News” has been the headline here in Madrid since the company announced it would shut its popular news aggregator in Spain. The move comes in response to a Spanish law that will fine Google and other aggregators up to $750,000 if they don’t pay newspapers for using their headlines and article previews. Content providers that want to give Google free access won’t be allowed to do so. All Spanish sites will have to be paid as of Jan. 1, but Google will remove all Spanish links from its service this Tuesday.

Most American news outlets have painted this as another Google-versus-traditional-media standoff—and most of the Spanish news media continue to debate the “Google Tax” in that framework—but the actual legislation is much more troublesome. Given the recent legislative priorities of Spain’s center-right ruling party, which like the Republican Party in the U.S. has come to embrace the views of its more right-wing members, the law raises concerns about freedom of information and political expression.

The Partido Popular won control of government in 2011, in a punishing vote for the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party who were in power during the onset of the financial crisis in the U.S. and the Eurozone debt crisis, which left Spain with record unemployment and falling economic output. Since the PP’s return to power, it has put forward many controversial proposals affecting Spaniards’ education, women’s access to abortion, and—most chillingly—the ability to hold political protests.

Last year the PP passed an education law that has been decried by educators, secularists and Catalan and Basque nationalists. The most controversial education reform in Spain’s modern democracy, the law requires Spanish-language instruction in all subjects if parents request it, vexing regions where most subjects are taught in the local language with separate classes to teach Castilian Spanish. It has allowed schools to segregate students by sex in contradiction of high court rulings. Also, despite an overall increase in education funding, it has frozen the amount spent on Erasmus grants, the popular program that lets Europeans study abroad, as well as scholarships to help poorer students attend college.

Most of this year was spent debating an abortion law that would have barred the procedure with exceptions only for rape or serious health risks to the mother. Abortion has been legal since 1985 in Spain, and access to the procedure was expanded in 2010 under the opposition center-left party. About 70 to 80 percent of the population was opposed to a change in abortion access. In September the PP withdrew the law due to lack of popular support, but will still require 16- and 17-year-olds to receive parental consent.

The PP wasn’t done; the party passed an extremely controversial public safety bill through the lower house of congress. The bill penalizes everything from losing a national ID card three or more times in one year to disturbing public safety in sporting, cultural, or religious events—or “any other gathering of a large number of people.” Any time a protest is not pre-approved by the government, organizers can face fines up to $750,000.

Politicians from all other Spanish parties have condemned the bill, calling it a “gag” law that limits fundamental rights of citizens to protest the government. Opposition politician Antonio Trevín called the law unnecessary and a “return to a police state.” An opposition chorus snuck in one last unapproved protest before the vote Thursday by singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the viewers’ gallery. The lyrics in Spanish translate to, “When the people raise their voices, no one can detain them.”

Taking that as an example, a similar protest in front of (let alone inside!) the congress building in Madrid—even if said congress is not in session—can now cost $37,000. That’s significantly more than a DUI, which merits $900 and eight months without a license. Want to videotape or photograph a police officer? Also up to $37,000. Peaceful resistance? That too. Even back talking to an officer can now run $750 if it’s considered a “lack of respect.” Is slacktivism more your style? Organizing an unapproved protest through Twitter—regardless of whether you show up or not—can result in equally exorbitant fines.

What does this have to do with Google News? Other than that the PP loves fines of up to about $750,000 (or 600,000 euros at the current exchange rate)? The “Google Tax” is actually just one aspect of a much larger law. As Manuel Ángel Méndez writes for Gizmodo in Spanish, the new intellectual property law will discourage business startups, hurt small publishers and bloggers, and may even lead to higher university fees. But most importantly, it will limit citizens’ right to information.

Just like the public safety bill, the intellectual property law was passed without the support of Spain’s other political parties. The law attempts to control how information is gathered and shared. The focus has been on Google as an aggregator, but the law is vague. As Loreto Corredoira writes for El Diario, the law gives little clarity to businesses but even less to individuals, bloggers and journalists. Will they have to pay if they quote from another web page? Can you write a blog on a new bill you disagree with quotes from a Spanish newspaper? It’s unclear.

Also unclear is which part of government will enforce the law. A commission may be created to issue the fines and close nonconforming web pages, according to Carlos Sánchez Almeida, a lawyer quoted by Gizmodo—and hosting sites could face fines as well. He explains that: “The law opens the possibility that the government could sabotage any online content by the simple use of fear. Will a hosting provider risk a 600,000 euro fine to host a website of links? No.”

If fines are left to an independent commission and not overseen by the courts, there is ample room for abuse and the targeting of political enemies.

Now that Google has decided to close up shop rather than pay up, newspapers have backtracked. AEDE, the Association of Spanish Newspaper Editors—the same group that lobbied for the “Google tax”—has asked Spanish and European authorities to intervene to keep Google News from closing. AEDE claims the closing of Google News will have a negative impact on Spanish citizens and businesses (i.e., advertising dollars from page views) and it wants more time to negotiate. For now, though, the Spanish government plans to continue rolling out the law. Their advice if you miss your aggregators? Use a search engine.

There’s always the hope that a Spanish or European court will strike down the law. If not, it’s adiós not just to Google News but also to the civil liberties necessary for a functioning democracy.

Joseph Duggan Lyons is a writer living in Madrid, Spain, who has dabbled in business, political organizing and teaching. Between articles on sexuality, economics and politics, you can find him Instagramming Europe. Follow Joseph on Twitter or Instagram at @josephdlyons.

Photo via Nick Page/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)