May 26, 2014
Google-bashing has become very fashionable. Businesses, individuals, and politicians around the world, but especially in Europe, have taken great delight in attacking Google: Google the monopolist, Google the privacy-killer, Google the tax-dodger, Google the facilitator of online piracy, Google the free-rider over telecoms networks. The list goes on.
My company is one of those that has most publicly opposed Google in the high-profile competition case currently being examined by the European Commission. We have proven that the proposed settlement with Commission will worsen, rather than improve, the situation for our business. The case is of critical importance to the future of the European digital economy. But this does not mean that we welcome indiscriminate Google-bashing. On the contrary, Google-bashing is likely to hurt us more than Google.
Google is a pioneer in the development of Internet policy. It is at the forefront of advocacy for a sound regulatory framework for almost anyone with a web site. It puts its money where its mouth is, promoting critically important policies like net neutrality, or opposition to ACTA, with a willingness to invest in studies, events, publicity campaigns, direct advocacy, and many other things. It is the standard-bearer of our industry, and the leader behind which many of us can unite on a whole host of issues.
Unfortunately for Google, this also means that it is the prime target for opposing interests. The dangerous thing about that is that unless policy makers understand that we are debating issues and policies, and not a specific company, there is a big risk that we make wrong turns in our headlong rush to “do something about Google”, and harm European Internet companies much more.
Take tax. Google makes use of the current international system to optimise its tax structure. A business like Google Shopping, which competes with European comparison shopping sites, siphons off most of the money it makes to Bermuda. This is frustrating for us because we are not similarly optimised. But the solution is not necessarily to adopt new tax laws in France or Italy that make it harder for Google to operate there, since such laws will probably hurt French or Italian businesses more.
Take privacy. Google-bashers around Europe have been cheering that in the wake of the ECJ “right to be forgotten” judgment, Google will finally be forced to comply with EU data protection law. But the judgment raises serious questions. Does our data protection legislation provide for the right balance between the right to data protection and other fundamental rights like free speech? Will the right to be forgotten benefit European society, or only European elites? It seems unlikely that a European company seeking to develop a Google-killing search engine could ever get off the ground in this tightly regulated environment, instead of moving to California or elsewhere, like so many European tech entrepreneurs do.
Google-bashers who have the interests of the European Internet industry at heart should ask themselves whether the solutions they are considering might not be boomerangs that will come back and do more harm than good.