BERLIN — In private sessions this summer, giant publishers and media companies from Germany, France and elsewhere have met with European officials about proposals to regulate Europe’s digital economy. The discussions have covered a broad range of contentious issues, according to public disclosures and several people who attended or were briefed on the meetings. Central to almost all of them has been limiting the reach of a single American company: Google.
The company has a long list of detractors crying foul about how it operates in Europe, including rivals like Microsoft and Yelp. But as Europeans take a lead globally in regulating the Internet and containing American tech companies, the Continent’s old media — influential newspaper and magazine publishers — are emerging as one of Google’s most persistent adversaries.
With Google attracting attention and ad revenue that once funneled to publishers, the goal is clear: Find ways to make more money, by strengthening copyright rules and limiting Google’s power as an advertising platform.
The publishers, including Axel Springer of Germany and Lagardère of France, arguably have the most to lose from the dominance of Google and other West Coast companies, as they look for revenue on the web to replace losses in print. Some of the publishers, in an effort to buttress their business, have even turned to e-commerce and social networking — areas that have only intensified the rivalry with Google and other tech companies.
“Where else can they go if print is dying?” asked Lucy Küng, a visiting fellow and specialist in digital transition at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
The newspaper and magazine publishers first focused on Europe’s continuing antitrust investigation into whether Google favored its own services over those of rivals. They are now broadening their goals in ways that would further cramp Google’s reach, according to several industry executives and tech lobbyists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the efforts.
“Newspapers help set the agenda, so politicians have to listen to them,” said Julia Reda, a German politician who helped shepherd recent digital copyright proposals through the European Parliament.
The push has awakened Google’s powerful lobbying apparatus, setting off a clash in Brussels and elsewhere in the region as the company tries to co-opt some of its media adversaries and hamstring more stubborn rivals.
Google and some other giant American tech companies already confront strong regulatory headwinds in Europe. Apple, Amazon and Facebook are all facing antitrust, tax and privacy investigations across the 28-member bloc. If Google is found to have broken the rules, it could face billions of dollars in fines.
Google formally responded on Thursday to the accusations, saying its search products did not harm online competition and providing data that the company said showed that rivals had not been harmed.
“We believe that Google increases choice for European consumers and offers valuable opportunities for businesses of all sizes,” Kent Walker, the company’s general counsel, wrote in a blog post.
In recent weeks, several trade associations, including the Federation of European Publishers, have met with Friedrich Wenzel Bulst, a top European antitrust official, and other regulators to also push for stricter, Europe-wide limits on how Google and others may use publishers’ online content. Many publishers are pushing the rules as part of an expected overhaul of copyright policy from Günther Oettinger, a European commissioner with ties to Germany’s publishing industry, by the end of the year.
If the rules are approved, Google may eventually have to pay newspaper and magazine groups whenever links to their content are shown on Google’s European aggregation sites. Similar copyright rules already have been passed in several European countries, but have so far backfired against the publishers. In Germany, Google removed many local organizations from its news service, which led to a drastic fall in online traffic to some newspapers’ sites. Local publishers eventually agreed to waive any potential charges.
“The argument is simple enough: Publishers want money from Google,” said Till Kreutzer, a German lawyer who has campaigned against these new copyright proposals. “Many European politicians are open to listening to that type of proposal.”
Over the last five years, print circulation for Europe’s newspaper industry has fallen a combined 21.3 percent, compared with 8.5 percent in the United States, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, a trade body. The publishers have pushed to expand readership on computers and mobile devices. But because audiences in Europe are fragmented along national and linguistic borders, the potential is often limited.
“They can’t expand endlessly internationally because of the language issue,” Ms. Küng said of Europe’s publishers. “Just acquiring other assets with the same problems is really just compounding the problem. The issue is monetizing content.”
“They have followed the eyeballs and the wallets,” she added. “I don’t see it as inconsistent.”
The sums that publishers are spending to lobby against Google are unclear; disclosures about spending on lobbying in Europe are voluntary, leaving a weak money trail. According to official records, Axel Springer, a German publisher whose flagship Bild tabloid is the highest-circulation newspaper in Europe, spent up to $55,000 on Brussels-based lobbying last year; the European Publishers Council, a trade body with close ties to Axel Springer, spent up to $555,000.
Yet the effort is broad-based, involving written and personal appeals to European Union officials and national lawmakers by dozens of publishers’ groups from at least 20 countries, including Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union, according to European officials who have either met with industry representatives or seen the correspondence. The moves go well beyond steps taken by American media outlets to contain Silicon Valley’s power.
“This is not about protecting the legacy business,” said Christoph Keese, executive vice president at Axel Springer and a vocal critic of Google. “It is about ensuring there is a level playing field and making sure that international companies respect European laws.”
Google has fought hard against the lobbying and investigations. The company tripled its spending on lobbying in Brussels last year, spending at least $4.8 million in 2014, according to its European disclosure report. Eric Schmidt, the company’s executive chairman, met with Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s top antitrust official, before her decision this year to bring formal antitrust charges. Other company officials have held meetings with national politicians to outline how Google can bolster countries’ often flagging economies, according to several government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Google has tried to woo magazine and newspaper groups, partly by creating a $172 million fund aimed at helping publishers adapt to the digital world. (The International New York Times, which is based in Paris, took part in a previous $65 million fund that Google created in France.) The company’s executives also regularly point out that Google sends millions of daily visitors to European newspapers and magazines through its online news aggregation service. Those links — which can represent up to half of a newspaper’s online traffic — generate much-needed online revenue for publishers.
“We recognize that technology companies and news organizations are part of the same information ecosystem,” David C. Drummond, Google’s senior vice president for corporate development, told an audience of media executives in Barcelona in June. “We are committed to playing our part.”
A Google spokesman declined to comment beyond Mr. Drummond’s remarks.
Newspaper groups and other publishing associations were some of the earliest supporters of the antitrust case against Google, the company’s most pressing issue in Europe. The more prominent antagonists, though, were Microsoft and other tech rivals, according to publishing executives and other company officials involved in the case.
That dynamic began to change early last year, when Joaquín Almunia, Europe’s competition chief at the time, signaled he was prepared to settle with Google, these people said. Google’s opponents looked for another avenue to press their case, leaning harder on their well-connected publishing allies for help.
Over the course of last summer, representatives from newspaper and magazine industries, as well as Brussels-based trade associations, met several times with Mr. Almunia and his staff to ask them to renounce the settlement, according to industry executives who were either present or briefed on those meetings.
“There were enormously long exchanges, and some pretty strong representations made” by top publishing industry executives to Mr. Almunia, said one lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The companies felt they were being served a settlement that was actually going to be injurious to their business.”
The rift between publishers and Google became most public in April 2014 in an open letter by Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer’s chief executive. Mr. Döpfner, writing to Mr. Schmidt of Google, criticized the tech company’s perceived dominance of many aspects of how people — and other companies — use online services.
“We are afraid of Google,” Mr. Döpfner said in his letter. “Our business relationship is that of the Goliath of Google to the David of Axel Springer.”
Even Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, whose European interests include the British newspapers The Times and The Sun and The Wall Street Journal Europe, joined the fray, urging the European Commission last fall to take action against Google, which it labeled a “platform for piracy.”
Europe’s publishers also took the fight to national capitals, industry executives said, asking governments to put pressure on Mr. Almunia to rethink the proposed settlement. By early September, Mr. Almunia officially rejected the settlement with Google after significant lobbying from both publishing groups and other companies connected to the case.
Mr. Almunia left the investigation to his successor, Ms. Vestager, who announced antitrust charges against Google in April. Many publishers backed the move, saying the company’s business model had limited online choice for consumers.
“Europe’s publishers are well-organized, well-connected and a really powerful lobby,” said Stefan Heumann, director of the European digital agenda program at the New Responsibility Foundation, a Berlin-based research organization. “Many of them are struggling to grasp the realities of the new digital world.”