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The European Union Wants to Regulate Google — Some More

EU flags
EU flags


It’s been years since Google could have considered itself welcome in Europe, but over the past few months the level of resentment there has escalated dramatically — and inconsistently.

So before you ask, “What’s German for ‘Google Derangement Syndrome?’ ” you might want to know what’s happened recently to spike the mistrust.

(By the way, it’s “Google Umnachtung Syndrom” — according to Google Translate, at least.)

Search censorship
The least-surprising development in the EU’s get-Google campaign happened last week, when a data-protection panel called on Google to expand “right to be forgotten” search censorship from such country-specific sites as google.de and google.co.uk to its primary google.com site.

The right, if you’d forgotten, is the far-reaching right crafted by the EU’s Court of Justice this spring under which EU residents can ask to have old, embarrassing, or irrelevant search results hidden from queries for their names.

Google hasn’t said how it will respond, but if it maintains its largely cooperative course it will cleanse all search results shown to visitors connecting from anywhere in Europe. When the EU remembers that proxy servers easily route around such geo-blocking, will it try to ban them, too?

(Disclosures: I’ve spoken at Google events, and in 2011, the company paid me for one appearance. Also, Yahoo Tech’s publisher, Yahoo, competes with Google in multiple markets.)

Quotation taxes
Many EU publishers want Google to pay for the privilege of showing tiny snippets of their stories in search results on Google News.

But demanding compensation for showing a link makes a mockery of a core principle of the Web: As Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has been saying for decades, you don’t need permission to link.

Further, rejecting search traffic is a dumb idea for any site that wants to stay in business. The biggest publisher in Germany, Axel Springer, admitted that last month when it revealed that cutting off Google had deflated its own online readership, and then reversed that move.

Is the EU learning from that? No. Spain’s legislature passed its own quotation tax in October, and the EU’s new digital commissioner Günther Oettinger thinks one should apply across the union. Because nothing fosters innovation faster than inventing new intellectual-property rights.

A breakup note
Finally, on Thanksgiving, the European Parliament approved, by a vote of 384 to 174, a lengthy resolution on “consumer rights in the digital single market.” That document doesn’t use the word “Google” but calls on the EU to “consider proposals aimed at unbundling search engines from other commercial services.” In fewer words, breaking up Google.

Its rationale for that? The “indexation, evaluation, presentation and ranking by search engines must be unbiased and transparent” — the qualities that the EU’s tightening enforcement of the right-to-be-forgotten doctrine erode.

The very notion that search engines can be transparent and unbiased might be plausible if we were talking about a library card catalog. But when anybody can be a publisher online, scammers and con artists will abuse that freedom, and unless search sites write and rewrite their own criteria and keep some mystery to the ranking process, customers will get ripped off by crooks who game the system.

Mobile, social, and other challenges to Google
Google’s reign doesn’t seem quite so secure if you look away from a browser’s search box.

In the mobile world, Google has already lost its place to Bing as the search engine behind Apple’s Siri — and its overall contract with Apple runs out next year. Even if it keeps the job of being the default search in iOS, however, the app-centric nature of smartphone use ensures that Google isn’t the only algorithm in town.

Then look at social. Facebook has grown from providing a single-digit share of many news sites’ traffic to being the top source — and therefore, as The New York Times’ David Carr noted in October, a major source of anxiety over the opaque nature of its News Feed algorithm.

Google+ in no way threatens Facebook’s dominance. And Google’s failure to get people to spend more time there suggests the limits of its own market power.

The EU’s leaders would do well to think about that before its slow pace of enforcement — its investigation of Google search practices has ground on for four years already — leads to another backward-looking measure like the “browser ballot” interface that came to Windows years after Firefox and then Chrome had dismantled Internet Explorer’s hold on the market.

Now if the EU really wants to unsettle Google in ways that most U.S. politicians won’t while also advancing its own citizens’ rights, here’s a question it can ask today: How is it that even as Google quietly launched an option where you can pay for ad-free reading at some news sites, it still won’t let Gmail users buy an ad-free experience there?

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.