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News release

ACAP answers its critics


Since the launch of ACAP in November in New York, ACAP has faced an inevitable flurry of criticism in the blogosphere (although we have also had a great deal of positive and supportive commentary as well). Some of the critical commentary has been thoughtful and well informed and, where we have been able to, we have tried to answer comments directly. However, it has proved impossible to answer all criticism in this way because of time constraints. Because so many of our critics follow essentially the same lines of argument, we have tried to answer the most common criticisms in a single document.

We doubt it will satisfy all our critics, but we hope that it shows that we take their comments seriously - and that these are not issues which we have simply not considered.


"Publishers should not be allowed to control their content"

Well, you would hardly expect us to agree with this. It's a point of view not a self-evident fact. The fact is copyright law exists all over the world and gives creators and publishers the right to decide about how the content that they have made and invested in can be legitimately exploited. The ability to express and share permissions for access and use in standardised ways forms one part of the necessary infrastructure to allow that to happen. If the point is that copyright law should not exist, that is a point that goes well beyond ACAP.


"Publishers are dinosaurs who do not understand the internet"

The publishers who are involved in ACAP are among the largest and most successful of online publishers; they have not achieved this through a series of lucky accidents. Publishers employ very sophisticated technical and marketing people, who know at least as much about internet publishing as their critics. Of course, it is possible to disagree over internet publishing strategies - publishers are not uniform in their approach to any medium - but it is discourteous in the extreme to suggest that the publishers who are engaged in developing long term strategies for their businesses are universally old, uninformed and out of touch.


"This is simply a way for publishers to "lock up" their content"

No - precisely the opposite is true.

Publishers who implement ACAP will have the confidence to make content available much more widely than is currently the case. Few would condone stealing a pile of newspapers from a newsstand and giving them away to passers-by for free, yet, there are those who think that this behaviour is completely acceptable - indeed normal - in the online environment.

One blogger wrote: "more 'stuff' will be published, precisely because you can do less with it." Well, if more good "stuff" is made available, that's still a net gain. Previously, end users would not have had any access to it.

ACAP is ultimately about fostering creativity and innovation from individuals as well as from big businesses.


"Robots.txt works perfectly well"

ACAP has been developed as a solution to meet requirements that have been carefully researched and defined. If the current version of the Robots Exclusion Protocol (or robots.txt) was adequate to meet these requirements, we would not have developed ACAP.

ACAP is not about reinventing the wheel but about making sure all the spokes are in place.

We recognise that robots.txt is a well-established method for communication between content owners and crawler operators. This is why, at the request of the search engines, we worked to extend the Robots Exclusion Protocol not to replace it (although this posed us substantial problems).

The Robots Exclusion Protocol was first defined at a time when the internet was extremely young and is simply not sophisticated enough for today's search models, let alone content and publishing models. Its original purpose was to manage bandwidth when that was a scarce commodity - a very different situation from today's world. The simple choices that robots.txt offers are inconsistently interpreted. As well as that, a number of proprietary extensions have been implemented by the major search engines, but not all search engines recognise all or even any of these extensions.

ACAP provides a standard mechanism for expressing conditional access which is what is now required. At the beginning of the project, search engines made it clear that ACAP should be based on robots.txt. ACAP therefore works smoothly with the existing robots.txt protocol.


"This is just about money for publishers"

No: but no one would deny that it is partly about money.

Publishers are not ashamed about making money out of publishing - that is their business. High quality content is expensive and it needs to pay its way. Also, it is important to remember that one of the key services authors seek in a publisher is exploitation/protection of their work on their behalf. ACAP will help publishers fulfil their responsibility to their authors in the development and optimisation of their work.

Content owners make substantial investments in the creation and distribution of books, films, newspapers, websites and countless other kinds of content, and they need to be able to make a fair return on those investments. Business models are changing, and publishers need a tool that is flexible and extensible as new business models arise. ACAP will be entirely agnostic with respect to business models, but will ensure that content owners can adopt the business model of their choice. If a content owner is able to find a business model which works for both their users and themselves they will succeed. If not they will fail. ACAP won't be the ultimate arbiter, the audience will. So ACAP presents a win win for the whole online publishing community and the readers and users of content with the promise of more high quality content and more innovation and investment in the online publishing sector.


"There's nothing in this for search engine users"

More content will be searchable: ACAP will give content owners the confidence to allow search engines to index their content under clear terms of use.

Publishers are in the business of providing content to users; on the internet, search engines have proved to be an invaluable intermediary in the process, bringing order to an otherwise chaotic internet and connecting users with content using sophisticated rules and algorithms of their own.

Other innovative models of intermediation are also appearing, creating new kinds of search engines and new ways of connecting users with the content they're seeking. The development of standards for expressing online access and use permissions will help reduce the chaos from which the intermediaries currently seek to create order and enable the development of an orderly information value chain which will provide users with access to the largest possible aggregations of authoritative content.

Future legal clashes are also less likely once there is a simple, non-proprietary, universal communications tool because when permissions are known and unambiguous the differing interpretations of permission which have led to lawsuits in the past will be eliminated.


"Publishers who want them can already negotiate commercial deals with the search engines - they don't need ACAP"

Business relationships on the internet should not simply be about deals done between very large corporations - and it's not practical for every publisher online to broker separate deals with every search engine even if the search engines were willing to enter into discussions. ACAP works simply, effectively and for no cost, for all corporations, large and small, making it possible to communicate permissions in an automated way avoiding the otherwise impractical and unrealistic need to negotiate a multitude of deals on both sides. ACAP aims to enable the majority of smaller publishers, bloggers, smaller search engines and other innovative creators and intermediaries to enter the growing market for online content with confidence.

There are, and will be, some publishers who do indeed have negotiated agreements with some search engines. However, it is our experience and awareness through the work on this pilot that, for the vast majority, in all sectors, ACAP is plugging a major gap. If there wasn't a gap to plug, we wouldn't be wasting our time.


"The big search engines aren't involved so don't waste your time"

Major search engines are involved in the project. Exalead, the world¹s fourth largest search engine has been a full participant in the project.

Any lack of public endorsement by the major search engines has not meant a lack of involvement - indeed, quite the opposite, and our open and collaborative approach has allowed everyone, members or otherwise, to see what we have been doing and contribute if they want. Which means that from a practical point of view, ACAP has been the huge beneficiary of input, technical know-how and quiet wisdom of all of the major search engines, albeit in an "informal" way. A large number of representatives from Yahoo, Microsoft and Google attended the New York launch. We consider them as friends and collaborators and look forward to working more closely in the future.


"The thinking behind ACAP seems to have been solely focussed on influencing the existing interface of Google, Yahoo!, and news agregators, without considering the impact on users of other, more visual, search engines on the market, or the potential for future user-experience developments."

ACAP is designed to be extensible to all types of content published online, including audio and video.

Indeed, as well as search engines, there are loads of other people spidering websites who do not appear to be delivering services to end users, nor traffic to websites, and for whom a completely different kind of permission will be needed.

The next phase of the project will work on extending ACAP for other business models and media. All ACAP members are invited to submit user case proposals. The original use cases have of course influenced the way ACAP looks at the moment. ACAP is a work in progress and will develop as more use cases are developed.


"ACAP is technically rather crude in places"

ACAP V.1 is a result of our pilot, proof-of-concept, initial phase. It represents the first public proposals for how publishers could more clearly communicate policies for access and use of what they choose to publish online. We are aware that there are many ways in which these proposals could be improved, indeed we continue to work on many new use cases as well as the detail to finesse the protocol.



Last updated, 18 January 2024


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