Europe Attacking Our Tech Companies

european unionIt’s clear that the European Union is attacking American technology companies. Evidence is everywhere. Consider the following examples or recent crackdowns against US technology in Europe:

  • Last year stringent rules were imposed on Google and other search engines to allow people to remove negative things from searches – these rules are being called the “right to be forgotten”.
  • The European Union is getting ready to file a massive anti-trust case against Google for the way that it favors its own search engine over others. The estimates are that the fines they are seeking could be as high as $6 billion.
  • Last year the EU voted in favor of making Google divest into multiple companies.
  • Numerous countries in Europe have blocked services from Uber.
  • The EU is going after Apple’s fledgling music business saying that they have the market power to persuade labels to abandon ad-sponsored sites like Spotify.
  • A decade ago there were several major antitrust cases filed against Microsoft.

There are numerous reasons for the antipathy that Europe seems to have towards American companies. President Obama said in an interview last month that the negativity was largely driven by economic competition and that Europe wants to find a way to support its own burgeoning tech companies over the behemoth tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. He thinks a lot of the complaints by the EU are due to lobbying by European tech companies. He said that “oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is designed to carve out their (European) commercial interests.”

But the president also admitted that some of the reaction to American tech companies is in reaction to the European history of suppression of freedom by dictators. For example, Germany just spent decades merging with East Germany and their history of oppression from the Stasi, the secret police. This makes some of these countries very sensitive to the recent revelations of the extent of the spying by the NSA. This one revelation might eventually be the beginning of the end of the open Internet as numerous countries are now building countrywide firewalls to shield them from such spying. It’s natural that this mistrust carries over to companies like Google and Facebook, which clearly have a business model based upon profiling people.

Another reason for going after American companies is tax revenues. The American tech companies have become adroit at claiming revenues in jurisdictions where they pay little or no taxes. Of course, this means that they avoid claiming profits in European countries which have fairly high tax rates. (This also means they avoid paying taxes in the US as well).

Finally, there might be an even more fundamental reason for the apparent European distrust and dislike of American technology. In this article published by Business Insider UK there is a look at the fundamental differences between the way that Europeans and Americans view entrepreneurship, technology, and uncertainty avoidance. The article shows the results of a survey and study done by the European Commission looking at how citizens in various countries look at certain issues. I think there has been a natural assumption that since both places are democratic and share a lot of first world values that we naturally think the same about technology. But the study shows some major differences between Europe as a whole and the US. Interestingly, England is very similar to the US in attitudes and perhaps our Yankee ingenuity and willingness to take risks is really part of our British heritage.

Here are some of the findings of that study:

  • Over 90% of Americans think that individualism is more important than compliance with expected social values. In Europe only a little less than 60% of people value individuality first. And in some places like Russia and Denmark less than 30% valued individualism more than compliance with social expectations.
  • When asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “entrepreneurs exploit other people’s work”, only 28% of Americans agreed with that statement (and the American dream is largely to own your own business), while the results in Europe spanned from only 40% agreeing in France, to 50% in the Netherlands, and over 70% in parts of southern and eastern Europe.
  • The US has a much lower threshold of uncertainty avoidance (unwillingness to take a chance on new ideas and new technologies). In the US only a little over 40% of people view themselves as risk adverse while in Europe it’s over 70%.

This means that to some extent the European Union is representing the will of its people when they crack down on US technology firms, which are viewed negatively as entrepreneurial and high risk. These kind of cultural gaps are very hard to bridge and US companies might have problems in Europe for decades – if they’re even resolvable at all.

Search Engine Privacy

Keep OutIn this country we have developed an interesting relationship between privacy and the web. We don’t treat all web content the same. And we do things very differently than Europe and the rest of the world.

For example, recently over a hundred female celebrities had their personal photos hacked from Apple and links to the pictures quickly proliferated over the web. One has to assume that millions of people saw the pictures and still have access to sites that have copies of them. Yet, if you go to Google or Bing to try to find sites with these pictures you will not find them. You will find dozens and dozens of stories about the hacking, but the search engines have effectively killed links to the pictures. This doesn’t mean that the pictures don’t exist all over the web, but it means that the search engines have stopped listing any page that has them.

This is due to US copyright law and we very efficiently enforce copyright in this country. In the case of these celebrities it was quickly very clear that each of them had ownership of the pictures involved, and it is that ownership that allowed them to request a takedown request to the search engines. The search engines have processes in place for this kind of takedown request because they process thousands of similar requests every day from content providers such as Hollywood studios, musicians and photographers.

But suppose instead that somebody like a paparazzi had been able to take naked pictures of one of these celebrities. In that case the celebrity would be powerless in the US to get such pictures removed from the web because they do not own the pictures. They would be free to sue the person who took and posted the pictures, but such suits are expensive and often are not successful. And meanwhile the offending pictures would proliferate all over the web.

Also suppose that instead that somebody wrote something mean and slanderous about one of the celebrities. The celebrity would have no power to remove the written word from the web due to the fact that the writer has a First Amendment right of free speech to say whatever they like. Again, the celebrity could go after the author and possibly could get a judgment against them, but the celebrity does not have any way to get Google or Bing to pull the offensive content off the web, unless somehow the content was illegal in some way. The search engines are allowed to block illegal content like child pornography or anything else that is clearly illegal.

Contrast all of this to Europe where they have similar copyright laws and a person can ask for a takedown request for content that they own. But Europe now has much stronger laws in other areas as well. It’s been about half a year since Google began implementing the court order in Europe that requires it to remove personal information that people find harmful about themselves. The original court order came from a Spanish man who objected to having records posted that showed that twenty years previously he had not paid his property taxes on time. The original posting came from a newspaper that had been scanned into Google. The man did not dispute that the facts were incorrect, but instead argued that he had a right to get rid of things on a web search that hurt his reputation. And the courts agreed. This new law is being referred to as the right to be forgotten.

Europe looks at privacy very differently than we do in the US. There, the laws and the general sentiment of most people is that privacy is more important than free speech. This is largely the result of various governments in Europe’s history, from the Nazis to the countries behind the Iron Curtain that tracked their citizens closely and trampled human rights. The European reaction to that history has been to make the right to privacy a fundamental human right. Here, we instead have made free speech into a fundamental right, and this difference is reflected in how we each treat the web.

Google and other search engines have been put into an awkward position in Europe in that they are having to decide what content should or should not be blocked on their search engines. Google has gotten about 120,000 requests to delete web data since the passage of the law and has granted about half of them. The way that Google is handling this is rather clever. In Europe each country has always had their own version of Google and when people in Spain ask for Google they actually get This is true around the world and Google operates subsets of the database in different countries so that Google can give a different priority in search results in each country.

So when Google gets a request to delete something, it only blocks it in the version of Google that is seen in that country. But the underlying document is not deleted in the larger database of and the information can still be found by searching there. Google says this works because 95% of the searches it gets in Europe come through the country specific Google and not through Interestingly, Google is getting criticized for not being aggressive enough with deletions and there is talk of imposing more restrictions on them.

It is going to be interesting to see over time what this difference means. For now the process is very new and Google and Bing are still feeling their way. But over time one has to think that having two very different philosophies controlling web content is going to make a difference between the web here and the web there.

A Right to be Forgotten?

International_newspaper,_Rome_May_2005In a surprising ruling, the European Union’s Court of Justice has ruled that Google must expunge information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” from the results of its search engine upon request. The case that drove this ruling was one where a Spanish man, Mario Gonzalez, asked to have information deleted from Google. In 1998 he received a notice that his house would go into repossession for not paying his property taxes.

You’ve probably seen these kind of notices that are put into newspapers once a year for everybody who is delinquent on their property taxes. Like most people, the taxes were paid and the house did not go to tax foreclosure. But Sr. Gonzalez had asked Google to delete the information since he found it embarrassing. The information recently came into Google when the newspaper that had printed the original notice digitized their older newspapers.

There was no dispute in this case that the facts stated in the newspaper were true, because Sr. Gonzalez had been late paying his property taxes and was properly notified of this fact along with everybody else who was late in paying his tax bill. He simply wanted this information deleted because he found it embarrassing and he thought it was no longer relevant.

As I have thought about this I think this is a dreadful ruling. It is being called having the right to be forgotten. But it is something else and it gives people the right to edit their life on line to say what they want it to say. To hell with the facts, but if anything pops up in a Google search you don’t like, then let’s get rid of it. Had a DUI ten years ago – how embarrassing. Raped somebody twenty years ago before you cleaned up your act and became a preacher – kill the story. You’re a politician and people write unflattering articles about your votes – then wipe them out.

This ruling is not about privacy, it is about changing what the world sees about you, regardless if those things are true. If this ruling is allowed to stand it will make the European Internet look like the Chinese one where ten thousand censors read the net all day to scrub out things they don’t find politically correct. Every unsavory person in the world can partake in revisionist history and make themselves look as chaste as the Flying Nun.

This ruling would make Google the policeman of what people want on the Internet instead of just a neutral purveyor of facts. In this case, Sr. Gonzalez and many of his neighbors did not pay their taxes on time. What if he did this every year, not just once in 1998? A prospective employer might want to know this sort of thing about somebody before they hire them.

The trouble with this ruling is that only the worst among us will use this ruling to erase their history. Most people would not be bothered by having true things about them on the web, but thieves, child molesters, political demagogues and con artists will have a field day with this ruling erasing the truth about themselves. There will be no police crime reports on-line because they might offend the criminals. There will not be a big pile of stories about the Westboro Baptist Church or the Nazi party because those groups will get them all expunged.

I certainly hope that some sanity comes to the courts there and this gets overturned. It is an insane ruling and it puts Google and other search engines into an impossible situation. Carried to logical conclusion it puts every newspaper and blogger at risk for having to pull down anything negative they have said about somebody, even if it is true. This protects the first amendment rights of somebody who doesn’t like something said about them in favor of the rights of somebody else to have a negative opinion of them. It effective says that anything ever printed about somebody is slander, even if it’s true.

It is a dangerous step when we start hiding the truth and can edit our lives retroactively. Mr. Gonzalez was late paying his taxes. He doesn’t dispute that he belonged on the public list of late payers. The newspaper that published that list had every right to do so, and until this ruling Google has every right to search old newspapers as parts of its search engine. The truth is the truth and none of us are going to like the consequences of people having the ability to change their public past. Once implemented this means that you can no longer have any faith in anything that you find on the Internet because it might have been edited.