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Despite Google’s efforts to whip up support in Europe, the company continues to lose ground on a number of fronts.
European policy makers have hammered the search giant in recent years over privacy and antitrust issues. Google has reportedly doubled its lobbying efforts in the region, but instead of winning friends and influencing people, Google’s campaign only seems to be making things worse.
Consider the events of the past two weeks.
European data regulators chastised Google over its privacy policies, following a summit of privacy officials. The group is still unhappy about Google’s move in 2012 to tie more user data together across its services. After its latest meeting, the group issued new guidelines for Google, including suggestions on how to make it easier for users to see what data is being collected and how to control it.
A more specific order came this week from a Hamburg privacy authority representing European colleagues. It told Google that its data collection efforts were violating German law and needed to be changed.
Perhaps more troubling for Google, two weeks ago, officials derailed a settlement in an ongoing European Commission antitrust investigation when they asked the company to make more changes to the terms. That decision came after German and French publishers and rivals like Yelp complained the settlement was too lenient.
The EC is awaiting Google’s response, and if it’s not pleased, it could escalate the investigation.
Google had been hoping the antitrust investigation would be settled by the time EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia left his job this fall. Instead, the investigation will move on to his replacement, Margrethe Vestager, a former Danish economy minister.
On Thursday, Vestager spoke to lawmakers at the European Parliament and vowed to put Google under even more scrutiny, according to the New York Times.
Google was “a business with a huge, huge, huge market share,” she said, according to the Times. “We should engage in not only fact-finding but much deeper understanding of these markets.”
How is Google responding to all of this?
Google’s European policy office did not reply to a request for an interview. However, the company has been making a series of public moves that show it’s in no mood to make big concessions. Indeed, in some cases, its efforts may be antagonizing its critics.
Google announced this week, for instance, that it would stop showing images and extracts from German newspapers in search results following moves to get the company to pay for using such content. Representatives of the newspapers called the move “blackmail.”
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt also recently published an opinion piece on the European Commission’s web site that took the continent’s politicians to task for stifling innovation. Schmidt argued that countries needed to work more closely together to reform policies, tax structures, and labor markets or Europe would never fix the region’s stubbornly high unemployment rate.
More than that, he said, Europe must stop trying to protect the old way of doing things and instead understand that technological progress and change is healthy.
“Europe needs to accept and embrace disruption,” he wrote. “The old ways of doing things need to face competition that forces them to innovate.”
Schmidt has been spending a lot of time in Europe recently because he has been leading a tour of the awkwardly named: “The Advisory Council to Google on the Right to Be Forgotten.”
In Europe’s “right to be forgotten” ruling earlier this year, the courts decided that search engines must remove individuals from search results if requested under particular circumstances. Google is still reeling from that decision.
The company has been making a lot of noise to protest the change, in particular by highlighting which search results it has been removing. But many critics believe the company is making too much out of a ruling that wasn’t as radical as the company claims.
That said, it’s hard to see how much the barnstorming tour of Europe by a hand-picked council, which includes folks like Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, is helping to change minds.
The council is holding seven hearings in different locations across Europe. Its mission is to hold “a series of discussions on how one person’s right to be forgotten should be balanced with the public’s right to information.” You can watch replays of the 4-to-5 hour hearings on the council’s site if you’re into that sort of thing.
While Google is couching these hearings as a kind of listening tour and fact-finding mission, the company doesn’t seem open to changing its position on the ruling. Instead, Google is likely to continue pressing its case through appeals and lobbying.
With Google and its opponents digging in on both sides of several issues (privacy, antitrust, right to be forgotten), the company may soon have to decide just how far it’s willing to go to get its way in Europe.
Does it continue to try to gently win hearts and minds? Or does it engage in more confrontational tactics that risk open warfare?
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