Belgium vs Google: The verdict

The following is not really Google Earth related, but it does have that Belgian angle…

Google has now posted the Belgian court’s judgement in full (Google’s English translation — ooh the irony) on, as instructed. The effect is comical:


I went to the trouble of reading it (it’s okay, I also went on a long walk through late summer Swedish forests for balance) and just want to highlight the crux of the judgement, which happens to be unintentionally funny:

Investigations showed that when an article is available on the site of the Belgian newspaper, Google sends you there directly, using deep links, but that, as soon as this article is no longer present on the paper’s site, it is possible to obtain the contents via a link to a version that Google has recorded in its “cache”, which is in the gigantic database that Google maintains in its enormous server farm [yes, singular].

(“Attendu que ces recherches l’ont notamment conduit à mettre en évidence que, lorsqu’un article est toujours en ligne sur le site de l’éditeur belge, Google renvoie directement, via le mécanisme d’hyperliens profonds, vers la page ou se trouve l’article mais que, dès que cet article n’est plus présent sur le site de l’éditeur de presse belge, il est possible d’en obtenir le contenu via l’hyperlien « en cache » qui renvoie vers le contenu de l’article que Google a enregistré dans la mémoire « cache » qui se trouve dans la gigantesque base de données que Google maintient dans son énorme parc de serveurs;”)

I love the last bit; makes you wonder if the the judgment had been different if the server farms were smaller or the database merely “large”. (And the judgement also twice prints Google’s address as “1600 Amfitheater Park Way” — don’t these lawyers know English? :-)

As for the merits of the above argument, it seems to turn on the fact that Belgian francophone newspapers want to make money off their archives, and that Google is seen to prevent them from doing this by offering a free cached version. Google’s defence was that anyone can request that they not be cached (I’m guessing via a server’s robots.txt file) but the Belgian francophone papers are arguing that the default stance should be no caching, and that Google should ask for permission before it shows cached content. In other words, it’s about who should be going through the trouble of asking.

Of course, Google without its cache would be much less of an institution, so I understand why they are fighting this; should the idea of requiring permission for serving cached copyrighted material gain currency, it could spell trouble for Google, though not just for them — the wholesale caching of content (copyrighted and not, by a great many companies, including European ones) is a cornerstone of the web as we know it. The Belgian ruling states that Google serving cached content copyrighted by the plaintiffs without prior permission is illegal. The danger is that in its zeal to teach Google a lesson, the court may have now also put a chink in that which makes the world wide web such a compelling technology.

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