Anti-Google rhetoric heats up in Germany amid threats of a break-up

Anti-Google rhetoric heats up in Germany amid threats of a break-up

Summary: In the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections, some politicians are saying that the search engine should be "unbundled", although regulators are more cautious.

TOPICS: Security, Google, EU

Things aren't looking positive for Google in Europe. After a high-profile judicial setback last week — in which a court found that Europeans can now request that information about them be 'forgotten' by the search engine — some politicians from the continent's largest economy are heating up the debate.

A Pirate Party election poster, reading 'I can't go when somebody is watching'.
A Pirate Party election poster, reading 'I can't go when somebody is watching'. Image: Michael Filtz

In a lengthy editorial in the daily newspaper Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung last week, Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's current minister for economic affairs, painted a borderline Big Brother picture of the search engine. Because Google tracks and maintains a huge amount of data, Gabriel wrote, "the seemingly harmless miniature machine in the inside pocket of our suits and jackets has developed a life of its own".

Gabriel, who is a member of the country's centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), posits that the action of typing something into the search box may involve more than meets the eye. The engine is not a passive tool to help us, but "is an instrument which is itself active, and [whose real purpose] is hidden from us".

Because of this, Gabriel recommends that the Bundeskartellamt — the federal cartel office — should investigate Google to see if it has abused its market position. If this is the case, he says that the company's services should be "unbundled". (After reunification, some of the country's incumbent utilities, like the telco Deutsche Telekom, were 'unbundled' — broken up into separate units — to prevent monopolies.)

Similarly, over the weekend, the SPD's Martin Schulz, who is currently running for the president of the European Commission, told the newspaper Der Tagesppiegel that "Google's enormous market power" makes it necessary to have it examined in terms of anti-competitive practices.

Just political posturing?

In some ways, the rhetoric may be just an election tactic by the centre-left party to capitalise on what has become, for some, an increasing discomfort with the state of data security in the country.

Since the Snowden leaks last year, the country's Pirate Party has tried to stake out this position, with varying degrees of success, and with a recent change in the country's election laws, it may get some representation in the EU parliament at the end of this week's elections. But with its well-known politicians and otherwise mainstream politics, the SPD might be in a better position to take advantage of voters' data security malaise.

However, In contrast to the politicians, regulators in the country seem to have a more tempered view of how to deal with Google. The search company is "not omnipotent", the chairman of the country's Monopolkommission told FAZ, and that the strength of the digital economy means that even Google has "no guarantee of permanence".

Andreas Mundt, the president of the Bundeskartellamt, held a similarly cautious view. There is a high threshold for proving that a company is exploiting its market position, he told the Associated Press.

Read more on this story

Topics: Security, Google, EU

Michael Filtz

About Michael Filtz

From the day he brought home a modem and dialed in to a local BBS in 1991, Michael has been obsessed with technology and how it enables collaboration. He has a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has worked in and around the technology start-up scenes in San Francisco and Berlin.

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  • Kudos EU

    Shutdown all evil practices by Google, invasion of privacy is unacceptable.
    • Ignorance is thriving today.

      Unbundle Google?

      Based on my understanding, Google's only main revenue source is its Search Engine. Every other FREE service Google provides is funded by that source.

      The only other option would be to start charging a fee for use of the services Google currently provides Freely (in exchange for receiving targeted Ads from other companies) to those who CHOOSE to use them.

      This EU Politician need a sign "I'm clueless to how things actually work"

      As was said earlier, everyone has a CHOICE NOT TO USE any of Google's devices/services. There ARE options.
      • But that is the complaint really...

        "Based on my understanding, Google's only main revenue source is its Search Engine. Every other FREE service Google provides is funded by that source.

        The only other option would be to start charging a fee for use of the services []"

        That really is the basis of anti-trust. If a Google really is a monopoly, then they are using their profits from search to destroy the value of other markets destroying competition. If there is no potential value in entering a market because a company carpet bombed every one else out of existence, then the market will stagnate.
    • Block all access in Germany

      and let them eat cake.
      • I'd happily eschew Google

        for carrot cake muffins. :)
        Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Let them eat cake or carrot cake muffins

        Obviously, you guys did not read the article. "daily newspaper Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung last week..." It should be "Let them eat Frankfurters" :-)
  • They have the option to not use Google.

    They can buy iOS, BB or WP devices. They can continue to use their old Symbian devices. They can use Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, Bleko or a dozen other search sites. They can use iCloud email, Outlook mail, yahoo mail or 50 other web based email services.

    At one point in time Google had, by far, the best online services. Others have mostly caught up.

    That said, Google does hold monopoly power over pieces of the internet and does use that position to enter other markets.
    • They "may" have cought up... but I doubt it.

      If they were actually as good or better, Google would be able to charge the prices they do.

      But so far, the the others can't produce the results people want.
      • I don't doubt of at all.

        Google docs is horrible on most accounts. GMail is complicated. MapQuest's has much easier and more accurate maps. Search in Google reminds me of the cluttered days of yahoo.
        • So tell us

          Why is the user base of google so much higher? Do most people find them all perfectly acceptable so don't search out any others? Maybe they haven't been spoon fed alternatives so don't go looking. Both Yahoo and Bing have spent years and $m's on advertising, why has the user base not swung if they are comparable or better?
          Little Old Man
  • outrageos!

    this is a smear campaign backed by the axis of evil software: M$, oracle and apple.
    These dirty deeds must be exposed!
    LlNUX Geek
    • As indicated in the article...

      Much more to do with Snowden, xenophobia and retribution than doing the will of Microsoft and Apple (both of whom seem to have more of a case to answer, if Snowden is to be believed). Also chuck in a spot of electioneering and you should get the picture.
    • Re: Outrageous!....

      So once again you are suggesting open source should be beyond reproach. The success of Android as a mobile platform is largely due to the foundation laid by Apple with iOS. Its fact and theres no denying it so don't kid yourself that all the innovation is courtesy of Android which is open source when it suits the Linux user.
      • Yes, Outrageous!

        By that same logic, the success of iOS is largely due to the foundation laid by BSD, an opensource operating system and license.

        Of course iOS introduced such innovations as app store I guess.
        • It's annoying

          Since apple invented the smartphone, I don't know what to call my pre-iphone phones now.
          Since they invented the appstore, I don't know how to describe the stores we were buying apps from before iTunes. Actually, apple invented apps so they weren't even apps.

          It's amazing how far these itards will go just to try and hang onto some shred of memory for something that only ever happened inside the RDF.
          Little Old Man
      • Fact?

        Oh yes, you're using the internet definition of fact - Some guy said so.

        You may be better using FACT, it wouldn't harm your otherwise fact-less comments.
        Little Old Man
  • maybe...

    Given what happened to MS and it's monopoly on the web browser and so now whenever a new PC is loaded in the EU they have to prompt the user for a choice of browser to use - Google should have to prompt for whether you what search service you want to use, or something crazy like that.

    I think they are barking up the wrong tree though. Rather than going after Google over the search they should look at Android instead - and yes I know you can choose not to use the google services on there but then no one ever forced a user to use IE either. Or look at splitting the advertising arm out from the rest of Google.

    Google is in a monopoly position in a number of areas (80% smartphone OS market, 90% internet searches, YouTube, etc.) and so as was done to MS should occur to Google, the question is what should be done and how.
    • Google isn't a monopoly would be the problem.

      I think there are two issues with "unbundling Google." First, you can't really argue dominance is the issue, if Germany isn't using that same soapbox to denounce Microsoft Windows. Second, Google creates AOSP and Google Apps (GApps). This isn't necessarily the same Android you get on your Samsung, HTC, or countless other Android-based devices. There are some without Google Apps at all, though those are few. Let's not forget though, there is plenty of competition in the market anyway. You have Apple's iOS devices, MS Windows Phone and RIM's Blackberry (for now anyway). If people feel this strongly, then they simply should switch. That is how capitalism works. The problem would normally be if a company becomes a monopoly and has no competition, which Google does have plenty of competition in most markets still. They are simply successful in quite a few markets but haven't actually cornered any except maybe the search engine market...kind of.
    • It's not the same as MS and IE

      The whole IE thing was the bundling of software and average users either unable or too lazy to change the default.
      There would be a parallel if android forced you to use chrome and google but they don't. Chrome is not the default and ultimately, all you need to do is type a different URL and homepage it, job done. Pretty shaky grounds for complaint.

      As for going after android? What, unbundle it from android phones? So the user should go out buy an android phone then be asked if they want it to run android. Like MS were forced to with windows?

      There are slightly tighter definitions to decide on whether something is a monopoly position rather than just take usage figures. Barriers to entry, aggressive markets tactics and so on. With the relative strength of apple in the smartphone market and bing in the search arena, I doubt any serious trade body would be going after them for a monopoly position. Advertising, well that's a different story for a number of reasons.
      Little Old Man
  • To be fair, I don't see "unbundling" as all that threatening to Google.

    Many companies do it by forming "divisions", where each division services a particular market.