L'État, C'est Google? Search Giant Threatens to Stop Indexing French Media Sites

France and Google: the showdown continues.

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A Google carpet at the entrance of Google France's Paris headquarters, December 2011 (Reuters)

Several years ago, the French government commissioned a report proposing new ways to accomplish something France has been trying to do for centuries: protect French culture against the many outside forces that stand to threaten it. The requested report would be a new twist on the old idea: It would focus in particular on the cultural menaces posed by the digital world. In January 2010, the report was presented to then-president Nicolas Sarkozy. And one of the most daring ideas it suggested struck at the heart of Internet cultural commerce, Francophilic and otherwise: search engines. And, in particular, Google. The report proposed to tax a small percentage of the revenues that Google and other search engines generate in France. It was an idea that would come to be known as the "Google tax."

The tax has been, unsurprisingly, controversial, but it has been, for that, a long-standing subject of controversy. French newspapers, in particular -- in a continental echo of the anti-Google sentiment so familiar in to us here in the States -- supported the tax proposal, claiming that Google, which serves ads against its returns, has been profiting unfairly from their content. Last month, a group of news outlets called on the government to adopt the idea. And Google, for its part -- as it so often does in the States -- responded with stats, noting that its search returns direct four billion clicks to French media pages each month. Google has also, though, responded in a more direct way, saying that such a wholesale tax "would be harmful to the Internet, Internet users and news websites that benefit from substantial traffic" -- traffic that comes, of course, at least partially from Google.

Today, though, Google is amplifying its anti-tax rhetoric even more explicitly. In a letter sent to several French ministerial offices and obtained by Agence France-Presse, the search giant threatened to stop linking to French media sites to protest the potential Google tax. Noting that it "cannot accept" such a law, the company declared that, "as a consequence" of it, Google "would be required to no longer reference French sites." The kind of sweeping levy that France is mulling, Google declared, "would threaten [Google's] very existence." And it is ready to respond with a similarly sweeping retaliation.

If it does, it wouldn't be the first time. In July 2011, Google de-indexed several Belgian newspapers following a similar conflict. But it's also worth noting, as AFP does, that France has already shot down a similar proposal to tax online advertising revenues -- so the chances of a "Google tax" passing in France are slim. Google's threat, instead, is most likely designed to bring a very real slant to the implied argument Google makes to all the publishers who question its business model: We'll miss you when you're gone. But not as much as you'll miss us.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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