ACAP, hypocrisy and Orwell

In his column this morning, my colleague Peter Preston mentions ACAP — the initiative launched by the World Association of Newspapers to control access to newspaper sites by search engines. Here’s a useful summary of the proposal:

The World Association of Newspapers, European Publishers Council (EPC), International Publishers Association and European Newspaper Publishers’ Association will pilot an Automated Content Access Protocol (ACAP) beginning 6 October at the Frankfurt Book Fair, said Kaye, who is advising on the project.

ACAP will allow content providers to systematically grant permissions information relating to access and use of content in a form that can be read by ‘crawlers’ so search engine operators and any other users can automatically comply with applicable licenses or policies, the EPC said. There are already existing protocols to help website owners tell search engine ‘spiders’ which areas of a site can be indexed. ACAP will not replace them, but will try to overcome problems such as the simplistic nature of the permissions they control, basically, ‘yes, please spider this page’ or ‘no, please do not spider this page.’

During the 12-month pilot, publishers will develop terms and conditions for the search engines to whom they have given the authority to automatically search and index their works. If successful, the standard will allow all publishers to take a tailored approach to search engines, ultimately enriching users’ experiences, the EPC said. While the project will focus first on the needs of print publishers, it will be usable for every type of online content, including video and audio.

To an Orwellian analyst of language, the interesting phrase is “enriching users’ experiences”. What form will this “enrichment” take? Why, this:

ACAP is supposed to tell a search engine something like this: ALLOW, but only for two weeks, then delete from cache and redirect to payment gateway instead.

I can see why newspapers would want to do this, but the only “enrichment” that would follow from it is theirs.

More seriously: do newspapers really think this is going to help them in the long run? In a way, we’ve been here before — with those arguments years ago about ‘deep linking’. I seem to remember that the New York Times got it and negotiated a deal with Dave Winer which gave blogs access to deep-linked pages while diverting ‘ordinary’ visitors to the paywall gateway. In a networked world, the only way you’re going to have any influence (or be read) is to have properly-linkable content. End of story. And if that doesn’t fit with your existing business model, then maybe you need a new one.