Business Technology

Saturday 24 March 2018

Analysis: Europe's high-stakes gamble with Google

Google co-founder Sergey Brin demonstrating Google's new Glass, wearable internet glasses. Photo: AP
Google co-founder Sergey Brin demonstrating Google's new Glass, wearable internet glasses. Photo: AP

THE news that Google is to be investigated by six different data protection authorities in Europe is not one that would normally elicit sympathy for the world’s largest web company.

Google has, officials from the French regulator CNIL said, “not implemented any significant compliance measures”.

A fine of up to £500,000 from Birtain’s regulator alone could be in the offing.

All this is over what consumers might think is a simple issue – last year Google announced that it would merge its privacy policies into a single document, covering all the sites it owns. So YouTube and Gmail, for instance, are now covered by the same rules. One might argue it would be weird if they weren’t, but such is Google’s dominance across mobile phones, search, video and elsewhere that campaigners raised immediate concerns that the company was giving itself new rights, unilaterally applied, to build up a more powerful picture of consumers than any had envisaged possible when they signed up to individual services.

Little wonder, then, that the largely sensible campaign group Big Brother Watch bemoaned “Google has repeatedly put profit ahead of user privacy and the way that the company ignored concerns from regulators around the world when it changed its privacy policy showed just how little regard it has for the law”.

“Consumers,” went on Nick Pickles, their director, “are increasingly concerned about how their data is being used and it is essential that those breaking the law are properly punished. It is essential regulators find a sanction that is not just a slap on the wrists and will make Google’s think twice before it ignores consumer rights again.”

While it is not yet certain that Google is breaking any European law, the investigations imply that many in Europe think they are. One thing, however, is certain: in America, where Google is admittedly somewhat less dominant in search, they’ve been given a clean bill of health.

It would be cynical to say that Europe’s approach to Google is driven by crude anti-Americanism. A different attitude to privacy is indeed ingrained into German culture, for instance.

But it is also obvious that, even with the enormous scale of the common market, Europe will always be a secondary market for Google compared to the US. If regulators make it harder for the company to operate in Europe, it is easy enough for it to simply switch bits off. So should you find that Streetview isn’t available, but Microsoft’s equivalent is, remember that it’s Europe you have to thank for that surprising monopoly.


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