Google News hit by Belgian ban

Google has been told by a Belgian court that its news service is in breach of the copyright of a group of local newspapers, in a surprise ruling that flies against existing global practice.

The verdict means that Google was hurridly forced to remove links to article French-language Belgian newspapers over the weekend to avoid a fine amounting to €1 million (£674,000) a day.

Brussels Court of the First Instance deduced that the way in which Google News operates "causes the publishers of the daily press to lose control of their websites and their contents," allowing readers to bypass websites

However, Google said that it intended to appeal against what it described as "flawed" decision — which would force it to close its News service if repeated elsewhere — and said that the Belgian legal action caught it unawares.

The court ruling follows a complaint from Copiepress, a syndication agency that handles copyright for French-language newspapers in Belgium. It demanded that Google should pay to link to their content or stop linking at all.

Despite the controversy, few other news groups have taken legal action against Google before now. The search engine is in dispute with Agence France Presse, but says that no other publisher refuses to have its news stories as part of the Google News service.

Google only provides a link and first line of a news item, which it argues represents fair use. "In some cases we are providing about 25 per cent of the traffic to a newspaper site, so we think Google helps boost readership," the Google spokeswoman said.

However, the search giant is embroiled in copyright rows with other media groups, including Perfect 10, an American pornography publisher, which claims Google infringed copyrights by creating links to images of naked "natural women" copied from its website and posted elsewhere.

Google's books service, which provides digital versions of titles online, has also faced legal action from publishing groups after allegedly breaching copyright laws.

Copiepress claimed that Google was making money out of news content supplied by others. Margaret Boribon, the organisation’s general secretary, said: "Google sells advertising and makes money on our content".

Google denied that was the case, pointing out that its News service does not take any advertising and "had no plans to do so," according to a company spokeswoman. "We believe that this case was entirely unnecessary. If a newspaper does not want to be part of Google News we remove their content from our index – all they have to do is ask."

The legal action came as a complete suprise to Google, which first learnt about Copiepress’s complaint when it received the judgement on Friday. The court hearing was held on August 29, with no represenatives from the American company present.

Copiepress also complained that Google kept cached copies of newspapers and news stories, a claim that the search engine denies. The search engine rarely keeps cached version of individual news items, although it does for the BBC, although it does retain a cached version of some newspaper websites.

"Cached" versions of the articles, which continue to appear on Google even after they have been removed from the newspapers' websites, must also be removed.

Google was also hit by a separate €500,000 (£337,000)-per-day fine if it fails to publish the court's ruling for five continuous days on its website within ten days of learning of the verdict. The court reached its decision on September 5 but Google claimed today to have heard of the result only last Friday.

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