ACAP: Without Google, what's the point?

    “Our legal department is a revenue generator for Corbis. We don’t have a lot of lawsuits. We just find infringement and then we turn them into customers.”
    Gary Shenk, chief executive of Corbis Media

Media owners’ flirtation with ACAP, a software protocol designed to allow greater control over what search engines do with their copy, has moved a step closer to consummation.

Today, a global consortium of media owners unveiled some details about the proposed standard in New York.

For the past 13 years, media owners have struggled with a straight yes-no proposition. Should they block search engine access to web pages by inserting a “robots.txt” tag? Or not?

The availability of robots.txt has been the search industry’s standard riposte to publishers worried that search engines “steal” their intellectual property. Media owners have rarely been comfortable with this all-or-nothing approach. As Gavin O’Reilly argues, the protocol “works well for search engines but doesn’t work for content creators.”

ACAP commands should offer a lot more flexibility. For example: publishers would be able to specify the length of time for which a search engine indexes a particular page. They could also tell search engine crawlers not to follow any of the links that appear on a given page.

Both scenarios will prove controversial among techno utopians who see the free web as the repository of human wisdom.

From their perspective, ACAP is just another form of digital rights management. In Silicon Valley, and among millions of P2P downloaders worldwide, DRM is viewed with distaste and hostility. Blog posts equating Big Media with the dying music industry surely aren’t far off.

Beyond this, there’s the question of whether the search engines will co-operate. They need to do so if ACAP is to succeed. Google doesn’t like the idea of ACAP one bit. Why would it?

Anything that reduces the efficiency of search queries is a Bad Thing — in revenue terms.

Thus far, Google has cordially ignored Big Media’s year-long ACAP development effort. It’s hard to see what might change its mind. If history is any guide, the most likely catalyst will be some kind of associated legal challenge.

From this perspective, ACAP resembles a carrot. As carrots go, it’s an interesting one. Fascinating, in fact.

But what really matters is the size of the stick being carried by Gavin O’Reilly and ACAP’s other promoters. It will be a while longer before we see it in action.

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