Last year, a British research firm pitted the almighty Google against the almighty God. Which one, researchers wondered, did the public trust more?
The result: Seventeen percent of UK residents believe that Google has their best interests at heart. Seventeen percent believe religious institutions do. A dead-even tie.
“It is because of the level of interaction that people have with Google,” Chris Worrell, the report’s author, told the Wall Street Journal. “It gives you what you want in a no-fuss way. Lots of people don’t have that daily interaction with religious institutions.”
So while it’s true that fewer than one in five Britons think Google is looking out for them, it’s equally true that that’s enough to count as near-divine.
And that result suggests that politicians’ increasingly heavy hand with Google ought to be met with some skepticism. One of the heaviest hands belongs to Günther Oettinger, incoming European Commissioner for the Digital Economy, who intends to tighten the regulatory vice on the American search company. Oettinger has signaled that he’ll support, among other measures, tougher copyright laws that specifically single out Google for punishment. He also plans to fight for harsher terms in the EU’s re-opened antitrust case against the company.
He’s not alone. The list of charges leveled against Google by press, regulators, and competitors is long and growing: unfairly pushing subsidiaries (like YouTube) to the top of search results, using the Android operating system as a monopoly-building tool, violating privacy with its Street View cars. European regulators have forced Google to change its algorithms, and some officials have gone so far as to call for the company to be broken up.
Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the multi-billion dollar German media group Axel Springer SE, wrote to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt that his fellow private-sector leaders “are afraid of Google. I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly.” For Döpfner, the debate about Google’s future isn’t just for table stakes. It “concerns our values, our understanding of the nature of humanity, our worldwide social order and, from our own perspective, the future of Europe.”
All this from a few search results?
Google’s experience in Europe could be cast as a 21st-century morality play: seduced by plans for world domination, the once-benevolent startup turns its back on “Don’t Be Evil” and falls spectacularly from grace. It’s an easy and familiar narrative. It’s also dead wrong. In fact, this is the story of a refreshingly unconventional company running into the teeth of depressingly conventional red tape.
Here’s why: Google didn’t rig the European market. It built an audience, an astonishingly large and ferociously loyal one at that. Just how large? Google has a solid lock on 90% of European Internet searches, not counting Russia. (Compare that to its two-thirds market share in America.) Even attempts to rein in the company are a testament to its popularity. In May, for instance, the European Court of Justice ruled that people could request search engines to remove personal information. Google and Microsoft’s Bing both released web forms to process users’ requests. In 24 hours, Google got 12,000. Microsoft got fewer than 20.
That’s the Google dilemma in a nutshell — massive criticism and massive success go hand-in-hand. But even the critics concede a few key points. Here’s Döpfner on the Google ad revenue his company receives: “We cannot afford to give up this source of revenue.” On the traffic he receives from Google: “We also know of no alternative search engine which could maintain or increase our online reach.” He sums it up: “Google doesn't need us. But we need Google.”
Exactly. Any company that controls 90% of its market looks like a monopoly. But we have to distinguish between companies that muscle out competitors through unfair market practices and those that earn their success on the strength of their product. To my mind, Google belongs in the latter category more than the former.
I’m sure Oettinger and Döpfner would reply that power is power, earned fairly or not — and that power always corrupts. Fair enough. But outside of press releases, do they honestly believe that any amount of regulation, taxation, or litigation will erode Google’s dominance in Europe as long as it remains users’ overwhelming choice? It’s more likely that such policies will come with a prohibitive cost to the European economy. For Google, every dollar spent placating an angry Brussels bureaucrat is a dollar not spent improving existing products or inventing new ones. Companies invest where they are wanted.
Brussels would be wise to bear that in mind, along with one more fact. The same survey that put Google in the company of the divine put both search and church ahead of another group: politicians.