The Sunday Times: Google is strip-mining the world’s culture

Amanda Foreman says the tech giants are making themselves above the law (Max Nash)

Amanda Foreman says the tech giants are making themselves above the law (Max Nash)

Unequal battles are worth fighting when the principles at stake are high enough. That’s the message put out by the small consortium of American plaintiffs who have recently filed a petition with the US Supreme Court.

The suit asks that Google be required to pay for the content it acquires. By “pay” I mean actually pay money, in the way that John Lewis pays suppliers for the products it sells, or Sainsbury’s, or any retail business in the real world. It’s only the online world that sees no difference between stealing and sharing, and believes that being a blood-sucking parasite is a virtuous form of extortion because nobody dies. At least not immediately.

The consortium consists of professional bodies that represent writers, musicians, artists and photographers, the people most vulnerable to loss of copyright control. Google has already won the case in the Court of Appeals, so this is a last-ditch attempt to update for the digital age the laws on the “fair use” of people’s work — meaning how much of a person’s work can be used or reproduced without their permission. It is led by the Authors Guild, which has been fighting Google since 2005, when the internet giant began copying entire libraries of books and offering their contents online “free”. (Free as in expropriating a commodity from one party, charging a second party for advertising on it and allowing a third party to use it.)

It now has more than 20m books in a database that it can use in a zillion different ways for its own gain, from artificial intelligence programming to plain old information gathering.

All the internet giants know that content equals hard cash, which is why they fight one another tooth and nail — through lawsuits and patent wars — for its control. It doesn’t matter whether Google shows one page or 100 from a book, the business model is based on freeloading and tax avoidance. Google’s parent Alphabet is worth close to $500bn — and is jostling with Apple for the title of biggest listed company on the planet. Incredibly, though, Google claims poverty when it comes to paying copyright fees.

There are two separate but related issues at work here. The first touches on what “free” and “freedom” mean in a democracy. Freedom, as in freedom of speech, lies at the core of guaranteeing artists and writers the right to own the fruits of their labour. That includes being able to sell it in order to earn a living.

By making people’s work freely available to the public, Google has been the No 1 cause of the drastic devaluing of creativity in the 21st century. “Free” content is morphing into “without worth”, which will ultimately lead to its extinction.

I know it’s difficult to imagine the toxic damage caused by Google’s strip-mining of the world’s creative content — especially since right now it offers such a pleasurable “all-you-can-eat” free buffet. But there it is: the world makes, Google takes. And takes.

The second issue revolves around the abuse of power. In the past 16 years, the internet giants have neutered every national and international attempt to make them pay taxes, curb terrorism, regulate piracy or respect copyright. Google, Facebook and the others have made themselves, quite literally, above the law. The one positive result from the derisory amount of back tax — £130m — that Google is deigning to pay to HM Revenue & Customs is that the public is finally seeing the truth: Google has become the feudal overlord of the internet.

Despite its new motto of “Do the right thing”, Google’s rule is not benign. Google doesn’t practise piracy out in the open; it doesn’t personally upload a copy of Star Wars: Episode VII for illegal streaming. But it profits, through ad revenues, off the individuals and piracy websites that do, finding ways of accommodation in much the same way that countries such as Iran and Pakistan accommodate certain terrorist groups.

As Kurt Sutter, the screenwriter behind the US television series The Shield and Sons of Anarchy, wrote in a furious article for Slate magazine: “It is a multibillion-dollar information portal that makes dough off of every click on its page and every data byte it streams . . . which all flow into a huge watershed of semi-dirty cash.”

If the Authors Guild loses at the Supreme Court — as many expect, given the backwardness of the law when dealing with the internet — the concept of “fair use” will become Google’s plaything. It will be able to shape and twist the meaning of copyright in ways that haven’t even been imagined. It will hold all the levers of power. Then who will safeguard independent art and thought? Not governments that can be bought or cowed, not consumers who can be placated with free goodies, and certainly not Google. Yet we can’t give up the fight. Not now, not ever.

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