Google’s European (Un) Welcome

Google gets more than its fair share of abuse in Europe. Some of Google’s punishment rises from fear of Google and the U.S.  Other punishment comes from whacky laws that the EU invents and applies to everyone. The EU seems determined to nudge Google out of the continent or at least hobble it enough to advantage European-based competitors. Either way the regulatory meddling will be costly for EU’s Internet users.

Google has dominated Internet search and advertising for more than a decade, even though it faces European competitors in those fields. The service is high quality and free to consumers.  Google’s dominance allowed it to invest in cloud storage, office software, mobile operating systems, and cellphones. Each of these seems likely to prosper. Perversely, Google’s scale, continual innovation, prosperity and U.S. affiliations make it a bull’s eye for regulations on privacy, EU’s strange antitrust regime, and truly quirky laws.

The record in an antitrust complaint against Google that has been moldering since 2010 is being updated. Simultaneously, the EU Legislators told antitrust regulators they should require separation of search engines from other services, in effect asking them to break up Google, to protect its much smaller European competitors. France wants search treated like an old telecom monopoly – regulated like a utility and with equal access obligations for all.

The revelation of NSA’s pervasive surveillance made France and Germany look so embarrassingly defenseless and asleep at the switch that European leaders had to react with actions that appear to protect Europeans from NSA’s activities. Those theatrical actions use Google as a convenient scapegoat.

Earlier, the EU had staked out privacy rights for individuals and in the wake of NSA spying, those became even more symbolic and important. France ruled against Google for placing advertising cookies on consumer’s computers without user consent and without revealing how user data is processed and how long the information is retained. The fine was trivial, but the message on advertising cookies was clear – keep those digital lice away from users computers.

The use of European servers and encryption for information in transit may become EU law.  Google already has 12 large datacenters in Europe and 19 in the US, but the location of specific information is not revealed. Despite its attempt to use Euro-centric servers for some purposes, the EU is working to make life intolerable for Google.

Europe’s newly discovered “right to be forgotten” adds pointless complexity. When requested by an individual, search services must suppress search results about that individual’s past. EU wants this “forget-me” scope to cover all information in the .com domain as well as EU domains.  In the U.S., the right to be forgotten remains undiscovered, and many regard it as ludicrous. The right seems tailor made for hiding Stasi collaborators, long rap sheets, or youthful sociopathic behavior.

It is likely impossible to satisfy the EU by operating two versions of the same search database – one in Europe that flags and suppresses some information and one in the US that does not. Ignoring the hideous cost, they could not be kept in sync and the EU knows there would always be tactics for searching on the uncensored base, defeating the purpose of dual servers. A U.S. judge has ruled that editing search results would violate free speech. To satisfy both continents, Google could retreat from offering search in the EU.

The EU privacy regulations, antitrust actions and server location issues are aimed at dislodging Google’s main business, search and advertising. To the extent these attacks are successful, they will allow for less innovation, create slower results and increase costs, none of which are good for European consumers.

However, European regulatory weirdness keeps coming. Google operated a Spanish news service that included local news snippets with links to the publishers’ sites. The publishers did not seek payment and were delighted with the free links since Google drove many viewers to their websites. But, for reasons beyond understanding, Spain banned the use of clips without payment, effectively killing Google’s Spanish news service and disappointing Spanish publishers.

Google is likely to prevail in the lawsuit against the Authors Guild over its copying of out of print books. The victory may result in the public having access to texts that had disappeared, but it may also foster pro-author groups dissatisfied with the court decision. Europe will view book copying as another tentacle of the Internet beast it most fears.

Alan Daley writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information, visit www.theamericancnsumer.org.

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