Google’s Latest Euroblunder Symptom of a Larger Problem

By, Desmond Molloy SAR ’19

To the typical American Internet user, Google appears ubiquitous. The Mountain View tech giant hosts 75% of all World Wide Web searches, rakes in money from its groundbreaking advertising model and has revolutionized fields from academic collaboration to self-driving cars. But Google’s North American dominance pales in comparison to its role in Europe. The company hosts 90% of web searches on the continent, giving it immense influence over Internet traffic patterns from Warsaw to Waterford (1). The company’s American roots, however, frequently arouse skepticism from local regulators and consumers. This month, Google has found itself in hot water over its subsidiary YouTube’s advertising policies. A Times of London investigation found that extremist content, including promotional videos from jihadi organizations, was raking in advertising revenue. Firms hawking their wares on YouTube have little control over the videos their products are advertised on. Consequently, banners for retailers like British department store Argos have appeared on neo-Nazi videos. Angered, several leading European firms pulled their ads from YouTube, forcing Google’s European executives to meet with a number of ad agencies in an attempt at damage control.

Google’s latest Euroblunder illustrates an ongoing problem of transatlantic culture clash in the tech sector. While many American firms followed their European counterparts in boycotting YouTube, the reaction was far more severe on the Continent. Google’s Silicon Valley notions of free speech and laissez-faire capitalism often rub up against more protective European legal systems. The French government has previously raided Google’s Paris headquarters over alleged tax evasion, a longstanding complaint against American tech companies in Europe (2). Foreshadowing the latest dispute with Mountain View, the German government has previously pressured Google and other firms to remove hate speech from its platforms. But few national governments can match the European Union’s rivalry with Google. In one of the best-known sparring matches between Mountain View and Brussels, an EU judge ordered Google to provide consumers with the option of “de-listing” themselves from Internet searches, establishing a right to be forgotten (3). Such a legal protection would be unimaginable in the American court system. Copyright has also been a major flashpoint. YouTube, Google Books and other content-sharing systems have wreaked havoc on the American recording, film, TV and publishing industries, chewing up thousands of jobs.(4) Late last year, the EU began issuing new copyright guidelines intended to target Google, including a requirement that platforms like YouTube install software to detect copyrighted material before videos are uploaded and rules for Google’s use of news websites’ content. (5)

The largest dispute between Google, Inc and the European Union, however, is unquestionably over monopoly and antitrust law. Like many Silicon Valley companies, Google can be fiercely proprietary with its software, requiring Android manufacturers to set Google Search as a default app to gain access to its Google Play app store. While American regulators have avoided weighing in on this issue, the European Commission’s antitrust arm has not held back. Last autumn, Brussels sent Google a formal warning, raising the possibility of legal action to curb the company’s licensing practices (6). Curiously, this issue has prompted a reversal of the two parties’ standard positions. Google, which endorses net neutrality and mass media sharing. Meanwhile, the European Union has grown concerned about market access, normally a dead letter in Continental politics. Part of this arises from protectionist instincts. European tech firms have lagged behind their American counterparts for decades. If up-and-coming Eurotech companies were to offer serious competition, Europeans might feel less vulnerable to Google’s transatlantic influence.

  1. European Union. European Commission. “Antitrust: Commission sends Statement of Objections to Google on Android operating system and applications.” News release, April 20, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2017.
  2. “Google’s Paris HQ raided in tax probe.” BBC News. May 24, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2017.
  3. Guidelines on the Implementation of the European Union’s Judgment on “Google Spain and Inc v. Agencia Espanola de Proteccion de Datos (AEPD) and Mario Costeja Gonzalez”.” Council on Foreign Relations. November 26, 2014. Accessed March 28, 2017.
  4. European Union. European Commission . Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on copyright in the Digital Single Market .September 14, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2017.
  5. Tworek, Heidi. “The European Union Clashes With Google Over Copyright.” German Marshall Fund of the United States. October 11, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2017.
  6. European Union. European Commission. “Antitrust: Commission sends Statement of Objections to Google on Android operating system and applications.” News release, April 20, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2017.

Image credit: The Guardian