Does Europe hate Google or hate America?

A mighty foe.
A mighty foe.
Image: Reuters/Yves Herman
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On the same day European regulators filed formal antitrust charges against Google last month, they also announced a new investigation into Google’s Android operating system. Meanwhile, the company faces fines in several European countries for its 2012 privacy policy change. It is confronting a web of new, harsher data-protection laws, grappling with a European Court of Justice ruling on the right to be forgotten, and awaiting a decision on another case that will decide whether European data-sharing exemptions for American firms should be stopped.

And the policy hurdles keep coming, whether stemming from serious considerations (see the European Union’s recent draft documents on regulating Google) or weak attempts to play to the peanut gallery (see the European Parliament’s recent vote to break up Google).

Taken together, these events and rulings and proposals certainly look like a concerted effort to tame Google specifically and Silicon Valley more generally. But the responses to Google’s dominance and behavior in Europe do not represent one voice. They come from different branches of the Union, from member states that represent their own national interests rather than European ones, and even from within different branches of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU.

A bigger question might be whether Europe’s many layers of bureaucracy have been gripped by a wave of anti-Americanism. Certainly many of the critics of Europe’s stances toward Google would say this is the case.

European officials see Europe’s fragmentation as a big reason the continent has not produced companies that can rival Google, despite a market that is 500 million strong. American firms have a single set of rules that grants access to a domestic market of 300 million people. By contrast, European firms must navigate 28 member states with different regulations and tax regimes.

On May 6, the European Commission will unveil its strategy for smoothing out these wrinkles and creating a more unified digital economy for Europe.

Is the Commission’s overarching aim to emulate the American model, or to destroy American companies like Google? For clues, we revisit the stated positions of three key commissioners on the issue.

“We have no fight with Google”

The European officeholder with the highest profile thus far on matters related to Google is Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s competition regulator. On April 15, she formally accused Google of abusing its market power, triggering an avalanche of complaints about European protectionism (paywall).

There is no doubt, whether in Brussels, Washington D.C., or Mountain View, California, that the Google antitrust case has taken on a political hue. But accusations of anti-Americanism in the context of this case would appear to be unfounded. For one thing, many of the two-dozen-odd complainants in the case are American companies—chief amongst them Microsoft, which spends more lobbying the EU than Google does.

Moreover, filing formal charges and giving Google a chance to respond means that the case must now survive on its merits. Google can ultimately take the EU to court if it believes it is being treated unjustly. It will be much harder to cry “politics” if a court agrees with the Commission.

Vestager is a sophisticated politician who has gone out of her way to reassure Americans (paywall) that “We have no grudge; we have no fight with Google.”

“If I hadn’t been opposed to it, the Google case would have been settled back in March”

The man who shoulders perhaps the biggest responsibility for America’s alarm is Gunther Oettinger, another European commissioner on the same level as Vestager. The man in charge of Europe’s digital economy, Oettinger has quickly made a name for himself as a Google refusenik. He has claimed credit (paywall) for ensuring a deal between Google and the EU did not go through, saying, “If I hadn’t been opposed to it, the Google case would have been settled back in March.” He has talked about imposing a levy on Google. He has cautioned that (paywall) “It must not happen that Google makes future products such as cars or televisions and European companies remain the role of the supplier.” And he has argued that settling with Google would only make it stronger.

Even amongst those who would like nothing more than to see Google brought to its knees, Oettinger is unpopular, accused of both pandering to German interests and intervening in areas beyond his authority. “I wish he would shut up and go away,” one Brussels lawyer says.

But Oettinger is going nowhere. He is the commissioner with the greatest degree of influence over the “digital single market” program that will be announced on May 6.

“American firms are allowed to have dominant positions, even monopolies here in the EU, according to our regulations” 

Finally, there is Andrus Ansip, a former prime minister of tech-friendly Estonia, the boss of both Oettinger and Vestager, and the man with overall responsibility for Europe’s digital single market strategy. 

The ambitious strategy is meant to tear down online barriers in the same way the EU has broken down physical barriers to the free movement of goods and services, capital, and people. It involves more than a dozen departments, with Oettinger’s office in the lead. But it is ultimately the responsibility of Ansip. He is more sympathetic to tech companies and indeed to America; his office has gone out of its way to prove that it is not targeting American companies. 

According to data sent by his office to the Wall Street Journal, only 21 of the 81 companies subject to antitrust decisions between 2010 and 2014 were American. Simply dominating a market is not enough to attract antitrust attention, Ansip told the Journal (paywall): “The American firms are allowed to have dominant positions, even monopolies here in the EU, according to our regulations. But nobody has a right to abuse its dominant position,” he said.

The make-nice position of Europe’s highest ranking bureaucrat on digital matters is another attempt to correct the perceptions of anti-Americanism that have grown up around the EU.

Ansip’s mandate is to “make Europe a world leader in information and communication technology.” He knows that the best way to do that is not by attacking American firms unless there are grounds to do so, but to improve conditions for businesses to grow in Europe.