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Briefing

Why is Google in Europe's crosshairs? It's not just trustbusting. (+video)

Europe's antitrust case against Google is not just about monopolies. It's also the result of cultural divides between Europe and the US.

Europe’s accusation that Google unfairly diverts users to its own products and services could represent the highest-stakes move by the European Union against an American technology company. But it’s hardly the only one.

In May 2014, Europe’s highest court ruled that citizens have “the right to be forgotten” from search engines, which has a disproportionate impact on Google. EU regulators later said the decision should apply beyond EU borders. Facebook faces a class-action lawsuit in Austria over data privacy. Many tech firms are under scrutiny for the tax deals they’ve gotten.

Taken together, it can often feel that Europe is simply against American big tech. Officials insist this isn’t so. Nonetheless, the political, judicial, and private actions against the technology companies does reveal a transatlantic divide – some of it driven by cultural values, the rest of it just the market reality.

Q: Why is Europe so focused on Google?

Google is in many ways a victim of its own success in Europe. In the US, where Google was also once under antitrust scrutiny, it is also the No. 1 search engine. There, it takes 67 percent of the market.

In Europe though, about 90 percent of all searches happen on Google. That means that when users in Europe search for products or restaurant reviews on the web, those competing against Google are at an even greater competitive disadvantage.

Q: Is there a cultural component to anti-Google sentiments?

Yes. In many ways, Google has become the McDonald’s of its day – the symbol of hegemony at the hand of an American cultural empire.

This does not mean that Europeans don’t love their mobiles, their Facebook and Twitter accounts, or new forms of socializing and staying in touch. But no matter how willing they are to buy an iPhone, they also routinely say they feel deeply ambivalent about ceding so much power to Silicon Valley.

Q: So Europe's concerns are primarily about cultural and corporate imperialism?

No. Even bigger than antitrust or anti-American issues are concerns about privacy. Put simply, Europeans guard privacy more tightly than Americans do. And fear of invasion of privacy is the main driver behind the “right to be forgotten” case or pressure on Facebook over its privacy settings or data collection behaviors.

To be sure, Europe is not a monolith, and attitudes vary greatly between countries. In Germany, where both the Nazi and Stasi apparatuses spied on citizens, often with brutal consequences, privacy is sacrosanct. In Ireland, where the subsidiaries of many of these tech firms are located and those jobs well-appreciated, concerns about intrusion are not as great.

But Europe and its many privacy watchdogs have come closer together in recent years, especially after the revelations of the extent of American spying revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Q: So does Europe have its own Google?

Not yet, though it's not for lack of trying. European companies have made some headway – especially by marketing privacy guarantees with secure e-mail providers or services to store information on personal clouds.

But Europeans say they’ve been hampered by the dominant position of American tech firms in the market. And some suspect that Europe’s offensive against big tech companies is motivated less by ethics and more by an attempt to simply slant the market in Europe’s favor. It's something that even President Obama suggested in a February interview with Re/code.

“We have owned the Internet. Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it, in ways [Europeans] can’t compete. And oftentimes what is portrayed as [Europe's] high-minded positions on issues sometimes is designed to carve out their commercial interests,” the president said. 

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