Bye Bye, Free News! Belgian Publishers Plan to Intro “Digital Content License” To Make Readers Pay


Just weeks after successfully forcing Google to pay for linking to their sites, it looks as though Belgium’s newspaper industry is about to crap all over its readers, with reports suggesting publishers will collaborate on introducing a so-called ‘digital content license’ that would force people pay to read their articles online.

The story was broken by De Morgan, and explains how the nation’s major publishers have agreed in principle to adopt a user registration platform called Media ID, forcing readers to register and then sign in before they can gain access to their websites.

De Morgan says that the system is set to be launched on a limited basis this April, before being fully rolled out on all major Belgian news sites by September of this year.

Media ID is a software that seems designed to gather data about site users – data which can then be used for targeted advertising purposes. At present, publishers have very little control over their reader’s data as most just browse their sites without logging in, something that Media ID would change.

Key to this plan is the level of collaboration among publishers. In a country like the UK for example, it’s unlikely that such a plan would ever work in practice, mostly due to the level of animosity between its major media players, and also due to there being so much content available in English anyway.

In Belgium though, where the media industry is split between Flemish and French language publications, things are totally different. iMinds, the research institute which created Media ID, recently announced that it had pulled off a major coup, “mobilizing the Flemish media on an unprecedented scale”, according to its own report.

Under the new plans, Belgium’s “big two” Flemish language publishers Persgroep and Corelio have agreed to stop publishing all of their newspaper content online for free. Crucially, what Media ID does is it also acts as a payments platform, meaning that these publishers will instead be able to erect a paywall in front of their sites, safe in the knowledge that their biggest rivals are operating similar policies so readers cannot go elsewhere to find free content.

What’s interesting is how Google is tied into all of this. The search engine is still reeling after losing its court battle against Belgium’s publishers, which, depending on who you believe, resulted in Google paying €6 million in compensation in order to be able to keep linking to their websites on its Google News service.

So now it looks as though Belgium’s newspapers are set to get a triple pay off. On the one hand, Google will continue to pay them to link to their content, and on the flip side, the traffic that Google drives to their sites will then be required to pay again, in order to gain full access to the articles. Also we shouldn’t forget, the publishers will soon be collecting lots of valuable data about their readers that can then be sold on to advertisers.

To top it all off, it looks as though the publishers have secured Google’s acquiescence by bringing them in on the deal too, using the internet giant’s expertise to assist with their paywalls and possibly even handle online payments through Google Wallet.

A win-win for the publishers and Google, but you don’t need me to tell you who’s going to be the loser in all of this…