A Smarter Way Europe Can Cut Google Down To Size
Yes, the Google 'monster' is too big and too powerful. But EU politicians imposing a breakup of the U.S. tech giant is not the solution. A mix of arm-twisting and open competition can do the trick.
MUNICH — The European Parliament has voted to break up Google, which is about the toughest blow a company can receive. The parliament's watchword seems to be "unbundling," which could mean forbidding Google from linking its products together — for example, telling the company that a Google search could no longer bring up Google Maps. There is also talk of "expropriation."
The vote is not binding, but it does put pressure on the EU Commission, which has been investigating for years whether Google disadvantages its competitors and users, and considering just how hard to move against the company.
The distinction should be made between commission issues and parliamentary decisions, and not just for formal reasons. Commission procedure is a more or less normal bureaucratic process that has seen Google make some changes to its products both to gain ground and to calm adversaries. One example is the Google Shopping page that offers an overview of shopping opportunities: It now lists not just advertisers but also competitors of Google Shopping.
The EU Commission proceedings are still open, and no one knows when or how they will end. But the parliament is trying to force it to make an anti-Google decision before commission investigations have been completed. Emotions risk interfering with the proceedings.
In this debate, the talk is always of the Google monster, the data leech, the monopolist — in short, a company that can only be dealt with by using the harshest means. And that's Google's fault. For decades the company has lacked transparency, particularly with regard to the question of what happens to user data. At the same time, an increasing number of people use Google products because they are effective and simple to use. The otherwise fast-moving company is only slowly introducing functions that will enable its clients to have a little control over their data.
In any case, the parliament members want a quick radical solution: break Google up. But do the actions of the American company really warrant that? On reflection, what would replace the Google search engine? A publicly backed European search engine like the one Google critics are plugging? The result would be a product that doesn't work half as well as Google search, but that would draw a digital line in the transatlantic economic space, marking a step in the direction of blatant protectionism.
But it's not just Google that would suffer. Users would too. The company needs to be dealt with in another way. Commission proceedings have demonstrated that, step by step, Google's arm can be twisted enough for it to make changes. What's more, if Google continues wrecking its own image as it has been doing lately, then more competitors whose values include data protection and transparency are going to surface.
The market is already going that way. Things would be moving faster in Europe if it were as easy to create companies here as it is in the United States. That's a subject the EU could take up with a bit more energy if it really wants to weaken Google. Under pressure from new, innovative competition, other digital giants have been broken up either partially or entirely in a way nobody would have thought possible. Think Myspace and AOL. Google could end up in pieces with no EU intervention at all.