Yet with the search engine giant under attack for allegedly homogenizing news and culture – and for drawing users into an unmonitored flow of content like a planetary mental magnet – European courts and agencies are trying to slow down the expanding Google juggernaut, and are perhaps looking for ways to share or regulate some of the bounty.
On Wednesday three Google executives in Italy were handed suspended sentences in a Milan court for not blocking a video posted in 2006 on Google Video, a now-defunct service that Google ran before it bought YouTube, which depicted the bullying of a child with autism – a verdict with dramatic implications for free expression and Internet laws in Europe that dismays free-speech legal scholars and the Obama administration.
Google is also facing anti-trust probes into search algorithms that may favor Google ad-friendly sites. This week the European Commission in Brussels is probing three complaints by European firms that say their sites and ads were pushed into cyber-limbo by competitors and that Google’s methods of “comparing” pricing for goods and services are punitive or skewed.
The British comparison shopping site Foundem, the Italian-German shopping guide Ciao, and the French search engine eJustice have all made complaints.
Google protests it has done nothing wrong and has abided by current European laws and regultions.
In the Italian case, Google execs say that with 20 hours of video downloaded on Google every minute, it is impossible to monitor content. Google’s position is that like any open highway system: it cannot be responsible for where cars go, who travels, and what passengers are doing. Google said it will appeal the six-month suspended jail terms and said the verdict "poses a crucial question for the freedom on which the Internet is built."
The “Europe strikes back” theme on Google has been building for months. Part of the European criticism of Google stems from suspicion that the California company presents itself as a benevolent good guy backing freedom and open societies, yet is expanding into new and lucrative enterprises where there are high stakes winners and losers.
The French political website Rue89 editorialized today that Google’s search engine was a small miracle: "Who would deny that everyone's daily life has been changed by the advent of this extraordinary search engine?” At the same time, unrestrained capitalism "is no paradise and the downsides are. domination... and abuse of power.”
Le Monde today quoted Dominique Barella of eJustice, to the effect that Google “de-referenced” the judicial website its subsidiary Google France after eJustice resisted Google ad reps: "They pressured us to use their algorithm and their advertisement system. If you did a search like 'jurisprudence rent' or 'renting contract,' we were coming out on top. When Google de-references you, you become invisible.”
The European Commission is not yet opening a formal investigation into Google but is asking for “explanations” for the charges against it.