By Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues
ETCJ Associate Administrator
In 2006, Copiepresse, the rights managing society of Belgian publishers of French- and German-language daily newspapers, sued Google about the snippets shown in Google News and about the cached versions displayed in Google Search. On May 5, 2011, a decision of the Brussels appeal court slightly reworded but basically confirmed the 2007 judgment of the first instance court :
La cour … Condamne Google à retirer des sites Google.be et Google.com, plus particulièrement des liens «en cache» visibles sur “Google Web” et du service “Google News”, tous les articles, photographies et représentations graphiques des éditeurs belges de presse quotidienne francophone et germanophone, représentés par Copiepresse …, sous peine d’une astreinte de 25.000,00 € par jour de retard ….
The syntax is contorted and the part between commas starting with “plus particulièrement” is ambiguous. Moreover, I’m not a lawyer. So here is a very informal attempt at translation:
The court … orders Google to withdraw from the Google.be and Google.com sites, more particularly from the “cached” links visible on “Google Web” and from the “Google News” service, all articles, photographs and graphical representations of the Belgian publishers of French- and German press represented by Copiepresse …, or pay € 25’000.00 for each day in noncompliance ….
Google apparently interpreted this passage as an order to “withdraw from the Google.be and Google sites … all articles” etc., as if the text “more particularly from the ‘cached’ links visible on ‘Google Web’ and from the ‘Google News’ service” simply specified a few important instances. Therefore, Google removed all references to content from these newspapers in all its search results on July 15, 2011. Le Soir complained that Google was boycotting them, La Libre Belgique wrote of a brutal reaction to the dispute with the publishers.
However, on July 25, Google announced that it would start indexing the above-mentioned Belgian papers again, declaring:
We are delighted that Copiepresse has given us assurances that we can re-include their sites in our Google search index without court-ordered penalties. We never wanted to take their sites out of our index, but we needed to respect a court order until Copiepresse acted. We remain open to working in collaboration with Copiepresse members in the future.
(From Chloe Albanesius, “Google to Reindex Belgian Newspapers Amidst ‘Boycott’ Complaints,” PCMag.com, July 18, 2011.)
The problem is that it is difficult to explain, in plain and simple terms, what this ambiguous court decision actually meant. Possibly, as I surmised above, Google’s lawyers chose to interpret it, at first, as an order to scrap all references to all Copiepresse-affiliated newspapers in all search results, and Google did that, initially, to avoid any risk of having to pay fines for noncompliance. Or maybe Google’s lawyers saw this ambiguity as an opportunity for a strategic move, knowing that the editors of these newspapers would not be pleased to be entirely chucked from all Google search results and would have to make a statement about what they wanted and stick by it. Or maybe both.
And the outcome presumably was that Copiepresse protested that the decision only meant that Google must remove references to these papers from Google News search results and stop linking to the cached version of articles in the Google Web search results, as specified in the part between commas starting with “particulièrement.” But all we have is Google’s declaration that it would resume indexing these newspapers on the basis of something written by Copiepresse: not the actual text of what Copiepresse wrote. And what the court actually meant, and whether it is the same as what Copiepresse intended, remains so far unclear.
Text of the decision
This decision of the Brussels Court of Appeals is therefore important for legal studies: not only because of the doubt about what it actually ordered, but also because its long and detailed initial considerations illustrate several differences between the US and European legal cultures. Until recently, this decision was only available as a photographic PDF on Scribd. This meant that it was inaccessible to blind people and awkward to study for everybody. Fortunately, the BJ Institute of Hyderabad, India, has now made it available as accessible PDF and DOC files. This is the version I used for the above quotation.
Thanks to the collaborators of the BJ Institute for their very accurate work.