Europe has declared war on U.S. tech companies, but despite this all-out assault, Europeans themselves still love American tech.
Just consider these events: The European Commission is demanding big changes to Google’s search algorithms, and if the company doesn’t agree to them, billions of dollars in fines may follow. Taxi drivers across Europe went on a one-day strike this summer demanding that Uber be outlawed there — and in response a German court nearly banned the ride-sharing service. Also this summer, France passed a law stopping Amazon from offering free shipping in the country. And several years ago a German state banned the use of companies putting Facebook “Like” buttons on their pages, for fear of privacy invasions.
The reaction of U.S. tech companies? Publicly they may wring their hands, but in private they’re laughing all the way to the bank. Because despite what European governments and Europeans themselves say about U.S. tech companies, they can’t get enough of U.S. tech —Europeans flock to it.
Why do Europeans hate U.S. tech companies? In large part it’s because of the more protected working environment in Europe than in the U.S., the stronger role of unions, Europeans' strong beliefs about the right of privacy, and a general attitude that the U.S. is guilty of cultural imperialism, running roughshod over local cultures and economies.
Uber is a good case in point. This summer, taxi drivers went on strike in Paris, London and Berlin, demanding that Uber be banned from coming to Europe. I was in Paris during the strike, and it took place on the same day that the French rail workers were striking. (Don’t ask — it’s a French thing, like fresh baguettes, Gauloises cigarettes and an unnatural love of Jerry Lewis.) Sure, plenty of people were inconvenienced, and French newspapers showed travelers trudging miles to DeGaulle airport, towing suitcases, because there was no other way to get there without a private car. But most of the country treated it with a Gallic shrug, and life went on.
That's because unions are powerful in Europe. Almost a third of the Italian workforce is unionized, 29% of British workers are part of unions, and 27% of German workers belong to unions. Compare that to the 11% in the U.S. Because of strong union movements, European governments tend to take actions to protect jobs, regardless of the effect on consumers. Hence the fear of Uber.
Europeans also complain that they’re merely the little people up against the economic might of the U.S. and its unfettered capitalists. Nadine Annet, vice chairman of French taxi-driver federation FNAT, told The Wall Street Journal: "We're little companies up against $18 billion," referring to Uber’s valuation. "Our profession is in jeopardy across Europe."
European regulators may hate American tech companies, but European consumers are enamored with American tech for the same reasons that people everywhere else in the world are — it offers cost savings, features and convenience you can’t get any other way. Despite being targeted by European regulators, Google’s market share of the search market in Europe aside from Russia is nearly 90%, well ahead of its approximately two-thirds market share in the U.S.
When Facebook bought WhatsApp, which is particularly strong in Europe, there were predictions that Europeans would stop using it, for privacy fears. Instead, a half-year after the deal was announced, WhatsApp’s user base grew to a half billion. And seven of the most popular websites in Europe are run by U.S. tech companies.
French book-lover Guillaume Rosquin offers a perfect example of Europeans’ love/hate relationship with U.S. tech. The New York Times reports that Rosquin frequents bookshops in Lyons in part as a way to protest against Amazon’s market dominance, and because of how badly he says Amazon treats its warehouse workers.
On the other hand, he also shops at Amazon, telling the newspaper, “It depends on the price. If you can get something for half-price at Amazon, you may put your issues with their working conditions aside.”
And that’s the way things will likely continue in the love-hate relationship Europeans have with U.S. technology. They’ll point their regulators at it, and complain about the toll it takes on workers and culture. But in the end, they vote with their clicks — and with their wallets.