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

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.

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.

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