Google has had a torrid couple of weeks in Europe.
Last week the German economics minister wrote an op-ed in a German newspaper saying he could imagine the company being broken up and regulated like a utility.
This week the French and German economics ministers wrote a joint letter to the European competition commissioner, criticizing a proposed antitrust settlement reached with Google.
After a landmark victory last week on privacy and the “right to be forgotten,” why is Europe threatening Google again?
It’s a three letter word: NSA
German lawmakers may call the heads of the largest US technology companies to testify before their investigation into the National Security Agency’s data-collection activities. At the time of the revelations, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt reacted to reports that the US government allegedly spied on the company’s data centres, describing such an act as “outrageous” and potentially illegal if proven.
The refrains from politicians about the need to regulate Google for reasons of fair competition are disingenuous, says a former political insider. This is just as much about spying and surveillance, retired politician Otto Fricke of the pro-business FDP party said.
“This whole initiative is timed to happen before the European parliamentary elections, to say to voters that we take spying seriously and we’re working to curb American power.”
Many of the radical, anti-euro parties in Germany have campaigned to portray establishment politicians as clueless pawns of the NSA’s spying programs.
Pressure has been building on governments to do something since the revelations broke last summer that the NSA was allegedly sucking up data from millions of European citizens. Industry was concerned that the NSA could be handing over industry secrets to U.S. businesses, and later revelations that the NSA had allegedly created technical back-doors into the servers of companies like Google only added fuel to the fire.
“Europe’s sputnik shock,” was how Frank Schirrmacher, editor of one of Germany’s leading newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, put it back in October of 2013.
Spying on terrorists was one thing, spying on entire societies “only served profit-making” and the Europeans needed to protect themselves and their “freedoms” from American dominance, according to Schirrmacher.
This is already being accomplished through privacy protections in the courts. The second front is likely to be waged through antitrust legislation.
The president of the German competition agency this week called on the German government to pass new laws to effectively regulate Google’s “market dominance.”
An expert familiar with German competition policy said any legal moves to break-up or regulate Google as a monopoly would likely take years of court battles to achieve.
The idea of taming Google through the courts also serves as a potent symbol that Europe is far from powerless in its desire to be taken seriously by the United States.
But it remains to be seen if Europe can follow through on its threats.
“I’m skeptical that regulating Google like a monopoly can be achieved in Germany, let alone at the European level,” said Fricke.